Produced by Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage is the debut feature of young Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. A ghost story set in a Spanish orphanage, it has much in common with its mentor’s masterful The Devil’s Backbone, not least in its thoughtful use of the horror genre to explore the troubled mindset of a character confronted with loss and death.
The film opens on an idyllic scene from the past as a group of children play in the garden outside the orphanage on a windy spring day. Over two decades later, Laura, now a grown woman, returns with her husband Carlos and son SimíÂ³n with the intention of turning her former abode into a house for special needs children. Soon after their arrival at the orphanage, Laura is visited by a strange old woman, Benigna, who reveals she knows confidential details about her family. When SimíÂ³n disappears after a party at the house, the police immediately suspect Benigna. But six months later the search for SimíÂ³n has yielded no result and strains start to appear in the couple. While Carlos wants to move on, Laura is prepared to try anything, including paranormal experiments involving a medium, to find some answers.
While the plot is at times clumsy and unconvincing, the locations are well chosen: the house’s antique, dark wood manages to simultaneously evoke the warm cosiness of the past as well as the disturbing secrets it holds, and the rugged Spanish coast provides suitably gloomy and mysterious caves in which SimíÂ³n meets a strange, invisible friend. With a genuinely creepy atmosphere that really grows on the audience as the story progresses, The Orphanage is a subtle, moving horror film. Just as in The Devil’s Backbone, ghosts are manifestations of a forgotten, tragic event and Bayona paints a deeply affecting portrayal of a grieving woman inexorably and fatefully drawn to the past. In that he is well served by Bélen Rueda’s magnificent performance as Laura. It is all the more surprising, then, that the generally restrained tone of the film should be marred by a couple of rather gory, unnecessarily shocking moments, in particular a grisly scene involving the victim of a road accident with a dislocated jaw. In spite of such faux-pas, however, The Orphanage remains a very worthy addition to the type of soulful horror movies that del Toro himself has helped define.