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Dead kids, dolls, and cavernous old houses in desperate need of some WD-40 have become such clichés in horror movies that incorporating any of them nowadays is nearly the equivalent of the it-was-only-a-dream plot line. So logic dictates that The Orphanage, whose very essence depends on all these eye-rollers, should be laughable. Consider its masquerade party, creepy old lady, and ghost-whispering session, and at first it seems apparent that writer Sergio G. Sánchez grabbed some spooky classics and Truby’s Blockbuster screenwriting software to stitch together his first script.
With director Juan Antonio Bayona also making his debut, The Orphanage likely may have never received Stateside attention if it weren’t for four words: “Guillermo del Toro presents.…” The Pan’s Labyrinth director is now throwing his name around à la Quentin Tarantino to help get projects noticed, but thus far with a little more discrimination. Though The Orphanage, Spain’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, doesn’t come close to matching the mastery of del Toro’s 2006 Academy Award-winning fairy tale, Bayona successfully bathes his film in a very similar ambience and generally proves himself a skilled acrobat in negotiating the material’s triteness.
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The story is set in the present but begins with a flashback to a few children playing a version of red-light-green-light outside their orphanage. It’s sunny, the grass is green, and their temporary home is a gorgeous mansion, but already things are a little creepy: Note the weird scarecrow, and how Bayona films the uniformed kids in shadow as they repeatedly freeze then creep toward the giggling girl who’s “it.” That girl, Laura, is about to find out she’s been adopted. The opening credits roll—with the names of cast and crew hidden behind ancient-looking wallpaper, which pale little orphan hands tear back—then it’s some 30 years later and we meet Laura (Belén Rueda) again. She’s bought the orphanage with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and plans to run a small home for the developmentally disabled.
Laura already takes care of a sick child, her adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), who’s HIV-positive. Simón doesn’t know about his disease or that Laura and Carlos aren’t his biological parents. He’s a good kid, happy enough to invent games and tell fanciful stories about his imaginary friends. But then a social worker, a weird, severely bunned woman named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) visits Laura, and Simón discovers the truth, claiming that an invisible pal named Tomás told him. Of course, Laura figures, he actually just overheard her conversation with Benigna, but regardless, Simón is angry and acts out during a welcome party for the home’s new residents, wearing a scarecrow mask as he shoves Laura in a bathroom and locks her inside. Then he disappears. The search goes on for months, Benigna is a person of interest, and finally Laura is so desperate that she contacts a medium for guidance.
The Orphanage’s scares aren’t cheap, and with an exception or two, you probably won’t even jump at its twists. Instead, its capacity to frighten lurks in its atmosphere—and as anyone who’s argued over films such as last year’s The Abandoned can tell you, a viewer’s mood can often dictate whether “atmosphere” translates into tension or just a big yawn. Unless you’re willing to completely submerge yourself in Laura’s world of increasing grief and eventual madness, it’s unlikely that The Orphanage will scare you witless, but Bayona nevertheless adeptly demonstrates why the visual clichés in his film became overused to begin with: Take, for example, a scene in which Laura dresses up as one of the former orphanage’s headmistresses and sits at a dinner table with a bunch of freaky old dolls. Or when she starts playing a new freeze-and-tag game with the hope that a few ghosts will want to join her. The house itself, all dark wood, long hallways, and secret doors, is creepy even before Simón vanishes.
Rueda, a former television star in Spain, is in nearly every frame of The Orphanage, making her subtle work as a desperate mother all the more impressive. Like any good horror film, Sánchez’s story isn’t simply one of terror; its layers speak of loss, guilt, and nature versus nurture. Better, it unfolds in a manner that leaves its events open to interpretation, allowing for both fans of the supernatural and the rational to be satisfied and inviting repeated viewings. Del Toro hasn’t presented a Pan’s Labyrinth-grade masterpiece, but compared to all that Tarantino-produced torture porn, The Orphanage is a respectable piece of throwback chill.