Here’s a rare modern horror film that manages to succeed on both creative and technical levels. Offering seductive chills, an engaging story, and a compassionate heart at the core of its ghostly goings on, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) ends up being a veritable master class in emotional manipulation.
The director displays the refinement and caress of a master with years of experience behind him manipulating the fears of his audiences. The truth is a different story, in fact, for this was nothing less than his astonishing feature-length debut, and with the backing of producer – and brilliant director in his own right – Guillermo Del Toro (perhaps skilfully pulling a few strings of his own?), Bayona succeeds in creating a sinister void of a world which we fully believe in from the opening scene, a flashback into the past of this troubled place.
Belen Rueda carries the greatest load and is superb as Laura, the mother who has returned, with the help of her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), to the scene of her own traumatic childhood – the orphanage was a place for children with disabilities – with a strong desire to rejuvenate the rundown home and grounds again for more disadvantaged children, including her own ill son Simon (Roger Princep). But her quest soon becomes entangled with ghosts – both figurative and literal – from the home’s turbulent dark past.
When her son disappears her life is thrown into turmoil as she succumbs to an overwhelming obsession to have him returned alive. She never gives up hope of recovering him from the clutches of the orphanage’s depths, both real and imagined – not to mention the cruel twists of fate which play such an important role in the outcome. It’s this resolute determination and passion of hers that become the force driving the heart of the story onward.
The Orphanage is one dead-set creepy film, with moments of subtle terror and tension that had me on the edge of my seat like any great thriller might. It’s filled with memorably scary set-pieces without resorting to excessive CGI manipulation. The sequence with Geraldine Chaplin as a medium is probably the best of all, though the scene where something or someone seems to have crawled into bed with Laura is almost painfully suspenseful and elongated (before you can breathe again!)
In this way, it’s a real throwback to classic films of the past which didn’t have the luxury of computer effects and were solely reliant on the skill and imagination of their artists. There’s definitely the influence of films such as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001) at work, but there’s such a strong individual stamp on every frame here that you never think of comparisons in a negative context. Cinematographer Oscar Faura is able to turn every dark corner and crevice into a place where menace may be lurking with his expert lensing.
Not to give anything away, but the climax of the film is an emotional, surprisingly moving one; and fitting too, in that it almost feels a weird kind of cosmic balance is restored just as Fernando Velazquez’s superb score reaches its most tonal pitch.