Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona's gorgeously creepy thriller "The Orphanage" is woven from familiar threads, and all the stronger because of it.
Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona’s gorgeously creepy thriller “The Orphanage” is woven from familiar threads, and all the stronger because of it. Hints of “Peter Pan,” as well as “The Innocents,” “The Others,” “The Shining” and other big-old-house horror classics, float through it like ghosts on a windy night, and Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez twist them into a genuinely haunting tale. Like the best of horror films, it gets under your skin not with gore or cheap jolts but with an unnerving, ever-building tension, and with images that remain with you long afterward, interrupting your own quiet dreams.
There is, of course, an angelic-looking child at the center of this tale: 7-year-old Simón (Roger Príncep), a frail little boy who moves with his parents into a rambling old house by the sea. The house is, we’re told in an idyllic prologue, a former orphanage, where Simón’s mother Laura (Belén Rueda) lived until she was adopted at the age of 7. Now returning to the place that holds happy childhood memories, Laura hopes to open a school for special-needs children, even as she worries about her own son. Simón seems lost in his own fantasy world, with his imaginary friends Watson and Pepe. “I won’t grow up,” says Simón, echoing a famous Lost Boy — because his friends can’t.
Bayona lets his nightmare build slowly, in telling details: the way the house’s doors angrily slam, the creepy (though not exactly scary) presence of a strange old woman in Coke-bottle glasses, the mysterious reappearance of shells brought by Simón from the beach. And then, midway through, something terrible happens, and Laura becomes obsessed with the idea that something malevolent is lurking in the house, where the not-so-happy sounds of children past seem to echo in the long hallways.
Ultimately, “The Orphanage” is about a mother who, in trying to re-create her own childhood, loses the thing most precious to her, and Laura’s grief — or is it derangement? — takes over the film’s second half. Rueda (“The Sea Inside”) gives a performance devastating in its emotions; her Laura seems emptied out, driven only by her desperate love for her child. Flailing and fearful, she consults a medium (Geraldine Chaplin, her eyes black-rimmed like a terrifying clown) who uncovers some of the house’s secrets but leaves Laura to go her way alone.
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Bayona and Sánchez (both first-timers, making remarkable debuts) are clearly immersed in the lore of horror movies; they even employ, expertly, that old chestnut of sending Laura down into a dark basement. With the exception of one absolutely horrifying image midmovie, involving the old woman (you just might jump out of your seat; I suspect that I did), they keep the action calm, knowing the fear that quiet can bring. A child in a mask, an abandoned doll with a torn eye, a worn scarecrow, the idea of children who never grow up — these are this film’s tools of terror, employed with skill and unnerving art.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org