From the Archive — The Orphanage

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It appears director J.A. Bayona is on his way to a second straight week at the top of the box office. To a large degree, that’s attributable to being handed the keys to the right ongoing cinematic venture. I can’t speak to the quality of the latest edition of Dinosaur Land, but when I reviews Bayona’s feature debut, it sure looked to me like he has some impressive skills. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Picturehouse Entertainment has made sure that producer Guillermo del Toro’s name figures prominently in promotional efforts for the new film The Orphanage, undoubtedly hoping that some of the moviegoers that made 2006’s dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth into a modest hit will exchange dollars for tickets to see this Spanish-language film. Fans of Pan aren’t necessarily going to have an automatic affinity for this film, but those who recall del Toro’s exquisitely bleak dalliance with the dark with The Devil’s Backbone may be another matter.

Like Backbone, The Orphanage is a moody, elegant ghost story which makes great use of simple, unsettling imagery. This film follows a woman who brings her husband and adopted son back to the orphanage where she grew up, fulling intending to revive the imposing structure to make it into a sort of group home for special needs children. The fates (and filmmakers) have different plans. Screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona use long hallways, creaking doors and enveloping shadows to great effect. There’s a clear understanding that the sort of cheap jolts are commonplace in U.S. horror films isn’t nearly as potent as long, agonizing considerations of deep-set, unidentifiable noises or probing eyes staring out of a rudimentary mask. The suddenness of an unexpected figure jumping from the dark may get the adrenaline rushing. The smothering anticipation of something horrific emerging will haunt dreams. (That’s not to say they’re completely immune from the temptation to shock as at least one moment relies on mere surprise to make it work, and it winds up as one the film’s weaker points.)

A film like this also benefits immeasurably from good acting, usually not a priority for those who craft films likely to be labeled “Horror.” In the lead, Belen Rueda is completely committed to finding the honesty in the supernatural goings-on. She plays the grief, desperation, personal fortitude and fear of her character with a grueling exactitude. Even when the film shows some narrative strain–the unconvincing skepticism of other characters or plain familiarity of the storyline–Rueda wrenches it back into effectiveness with the conviction of her acting.

Bayona is very strong and creating mood and ever better at developing tension. The film may occasionally falter in ways typical of the genre, but Bayona’s elegant shot construction (the beautiful cinematography is by Oscar Fauna) and assured visual storytelling help smooth over those rough patches, including the unnecessary coda which washes away the mild ambiguity of the scene that immediately precedes it and should have been the film’s closing note. Thanks to the honorable efforts of Bayona and his collaborators, The Orphanage is sharp and deep and, yes, scary.

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