There are plenty of spooky haunted house stories out there, but the fact that Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro is presenting The Orphanage is the first sign that it’s something special. Distributor Picturehouse is trying to pitch Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature as the next incarnation of del Toro’s smash hit, and both films do feature creepy atmospherics and a fantasy world created and run by children. The Orphanage doesn’t quite fill Pan’s shoes, but like 2001’s superb haunted house thriller The Others, it shows how beautiful the genre can be when done right. It’s a fingers-over-your-eyes thriller with deep emotional subtext, as much about the bond between mothers and children as trying to scare you out of your seat.
Revered Spanish actress Belen Rueda stars as Laura, a woman who grew up in a seaside orphanage and left with nothing but happy, almost ridiculously idyllic memories. With her son Simon (Roger Princep) and husband (Fernando Cayo), she returns to her childhood home with the intention of opening it to developmentally disabled children. Simón, who is also disabled in a way his mother hasn’t yet told him, soon expands his lively imagination to include several imaginary friends with whom he stages elaborate scavenger hunts throughout the house. Laura pays the games no mind until objects Simón could never find start disappearing, and during a party for the children who will live there, Simón disappears. A frantic Laura is attacked by a child in a sack mask whom no one else can see, and after months of despair Laura becomes convinced that Simón can be rescued if she engages in this supernatural scavenger hunt on her own.
Though The Orphanage sticks fairly closely to a genre fomat, and the plot twists become a little predictable, the film packs surprises all the way to the end. As Laura becomes more unhinged in her search for her son, turning to psychologists and even a psychic medium, she abandons rational decision-making for full-fledged maternal panic. You never know what she’ll do next, and though you trust her, Bayona never promises a happy ending—and, depending on who you ask, you don’t get one either. Rueda commits herself fearlessly to the performance-- she reportedly lost 10 pounds during filming--and carries the entire film on her taut shoulders. American starlets who have sleepwalked their way through any number of recent thrillers should hang their heads in shame.
I’m admittedly a wimp when it comes to horror movies, but still, I may have missed half the movie because I was afraid to look. In the film’s one instance of gore, an entire room full of jaded critics gasped. The house takes on a life of its own, as most houses in these kinds of movies do, but it’s all the scarier because we feel Laura’s panic so deeply. The movie earns it scares, never faking us out with quick cuts or sudden noises, but settling into our bones and chilling us in a way we’ve forgotten was possible.
Though The Orphanage never quite transcends its horror roots, it is expertly made and acted, a true thriller for grown-ups. It will duke it out at the Oscars as Spain’s submission for Best Foreign Language film, and while a creepy ghost story may not stand a chance, it deserves one. Don’t wait for the English-language remake (yes, of course they’re planning one). In this case, at least, everything’s scarier in Spanish.