It's his name on the poster, but Guillermo del Toro
had zero creative input in The Orphanage; instead, the rotund Spaniard took director Juan Antonio Bayona under his meaty wing and insured his film got the attention it deserved. However, it does indeed share similarities with del Toro's best work: like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth before it, The Orphanage is a dark, brooding horror that's grounded in reality but flirts with supernatural elements to winning effect.
The movie opens with a pan over a lush-looking orphanage, with school-children playing raucously in the courtyard - such innocent horseplay will later be significantly more disturbing. Fast-forward a few years and we meet Laura (Rueda), a former inhabitant who has returned to purchase her old orphanage with plans to re-open it for disabled children. Together with her husband Carlos (Cayo) and her HIV-infected young son Simón (Príncep), Laura moves in and prepares for the grand re-opening, but the re-appearance of an ex-worker in the black of night signals the start of some ghostly goings-on. When Símón goes missing after playing with his imaginary friends, Laura refuses to accept his death and becomes convinced that unseen forces around the orphanage are leaving her clues to the whereabouts of her son.
Be warned: this is not the haunted house creature feature the advertising may have led you to believe, and those expecting a shock-and-awe fright-fest will go home disappointed. Instead, it's a character-based film that expertly builds up a suspenseful plot, using horror elements to craft a menacing atmosphere and a feeling of unease. The spooky little nipper wearing the sack over his head? He gets one scene, but it's a cracker. The Orphanage is not a film that relies on gimmicks or cheap shots; creaking doors and things-that-goes-bump-in-the-night are used sparingly but expertly.
What little graphic violence there is will shock (eww fingernails), but it's the lingering feeling of dread that will really get under your skin. One scene, in which a medium is hired to decode the ghostly messages the house is communicating, shows almost nothing other than the faintly-lit flicker of a night vision camera, paired with the wretched screams of crying children - it's a truly chilling sequence that will fire the imagination. That the film features not one 'Boo!' scare in its entire running time is to be highly commended; the anticipation is the real killer here. The ghostly forces of The Orphanage seem to be almost toying with the protagonists, with director Bayona using the motif of childhood parlour games as a solid template of spookiness: a scarier game of 'peek behind the curtain' you will not see.
The fact you'll buy into The Orphanage is mostly due to its wonderful lead actress. Rueda is superb as the distressed mother who slowly realises her new home houses more than its fair share of dark secrets. In all honesty, hers is a role that requires more reaction that action - she's practically dragged from scene to scene - but Rueda's depth of emotion gives proceedings an extra kick: you'll be desperate to see her reunited with her son. She slowly unravels throughout the course of the film, and Rueda convincingly portrays a woman with nothing to lose but her sanity.
The Orphanage is not a film that peddles cheap scares or easy answers, and the ambiguous ending may frustrate some and confuse others. Guillermo del Toro will no doubt be extremely flattered at much of the movie's gothic styles and sensibilities, but it's unquestionably a breath of fresh air when compared to its US contemporaries; what would you rather see - a cleverly crafted, slow-burning European horror or yet another identikit, brain-dead slasher movie? The horror genre is not often known for its subtlety, but The Orphanage proves that sometimes it's more satisfying to squirm in your seat than it is to jump out of it. Ali