Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the abandoned orphanage where she spent her childhood, intending to reopen it with her husband and young son, Simon. Simon has several imaginary friends, but are they so make-believe? Or in fact, former residents? Soon after, he disappears and in desperation Laura tries to believe in his stories in the hope they will lead her to him.
The Orphanage is a good old fashioned ghost story. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, this is a perfect companion to Pan’s Labyrinth or his earlier Devil’s Backbone. The story is detailed and in fact, director Juan Antonio Bayona spends as much time on the back story as on the scares, both combining to make one very memorable film. Nothing original really, but ghost films like this are few and far between, especially ones that get it so right.
It is frequently and genuinely scary, though not gory (except for one brief moment), relying instead on suggestion and sound. The DVD mix is superb with the creaky old building groaning so much you’ll think someone is crawling around your own house. As with a lot of stories of this type, it perhaps loses a little pace in the third act as it has to start to tie everything up, however, tie up it does and in the most beautiful fashion. Maybe you’ll guess the outcome, but you should still find it a moving conclusion. The story is clever enough to offer a variety of interpretations and as such I expect it will keep coming back to me. One scene in particular with the sinister, masked Tomas is very ambiguous. It’s got a great cast and Belén Rueda’s brilliant and intense performance as Laura unravels especially holds it all together.
Elegantly written and the photography is wonderful throughout varied weather and seasons. Inside, the house always seems warm, but with scary potential. That can’t have been straightforward because after all, for the story to work, we have to believe it can be a welcoming home for children, not just a hell mouth, so to speak. However, it is foreboding, especially in a greenish night vision sequence that will have you biting your finger nails down to nothing!
If you haven’t tried foreign films before, this and Del Toro’s others are an excellent place to start. Hollywood forgot how to make scary yet substantial films ages ago and so you’re selling yourself short by ignoring Spanish and Asian releases.