In a towering and creaking old beast of a building somewhere in a gorgeous coastal part of Spain, an attractive couple on the younger slope of middle age pass the days in enjoyable semi-solitude with their adorable, seven-year-old son. The building is actually an old orphanage, where the mother, Laura (Belén Rueda
), spent her formative years and which she and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo
), now intend to open again as a home for children with special needs. It makes sense; their boy Simón (Roger Príncep) is lonely and seems to be getting a little too involved with his two invisible friends, Watson and Pepe. One day, Laura and Simón go for a walk down by the sea cliffs and she loses him briefly in a cave. When she finds him, he appears to have made a few more imaginary friends. And things aren't quite the same after that in the orphanage.
In his stealthily creepy The Orphanage, first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona
makes a decent bid for being considered one of the new wave of Spanish directors, and looks likely to be soon making the hop to Hollywood in the footsteps of the film's producer, Guillermo del Toro
. He's managed a very difficult task here in taking a large batch of genre tropes, from lost children to haunted houses to buried crimes and even lonely lighthouses in the foggy night, and made them all jump out of the precisely ordered mise-en-scene like they were freshly minted. Add to this the fact that his film shares so many stylistic and thematic characteristics of del Toro's (particularly The Devil's Backbone) that he had the added pressure of not aping his producer's work. Despite all this, on almost every level that it needs to, The Orphanage succeeds. Article continues below
A lot of this is due to the top-notch cast that Bayona has assembled, starting with Belén Rueda as the mother, whose sense of guilt and loss, once she starts to get an inkling of the dark world she's led her fragile family into, is achingly real. Although having Simón be played by an actor of such endearing cuteness as Roger Príncep would seem to indicate a perverse or sentimental streak in the filmmaker, such worries are quickly put to rest by the boy's consummate skill. Most of the other adults are competent but mostly beside the point -- with the grand exception of a sly and sharp Geraldine Chaplin
, playing a medium whose skills are called upon later in the film -- as the film centers for the most part around Rueda. To give away much of anything else about the story would be unfair; suffice it to say that Rueda's little nuclear family is hardly alone in their once and future orphanage.
Bayona and his screenwriter (the frighteningly talented Sergio G. Sánchez) have a wealth of influences here, mostly from the classic ghost story side of the horror film vault -- not to mention the glossy, crackling darkness of del Toro's work -- and they are deployed to maximum effect. Although not trading heavily in gore or shock value, there are a good half-dozen moments here of precisely calibrated fright that will reduce a number of people in any audience to quivering jelly. Making such moments all the more effective is the fact that the filmmakers here do not seem so much interested in sheer fright but in evoking a ghostly and otherworldly feel that seeps into almost every frame. This is a ghost story, for sure, but the kind that is more truly about the terror of and acceptance of death than anything else. To paraphrase an old saying, as long as people are afraid of dying, they will be afraid of ghosts; the makers of The Orphanage know that to be true, do they ever.