In my fusty little Ranylt world, even a mediocre Spanish horror movie makes for a more effective horror movie than pretty much anything generated on this side of the pond, at least these days. Before Dario Argento went to seed in the early ’80s, viewers mainly counted on the Italians to produce great Southern European thrillers—and, despite a few damp patches like Jaume Balagueró’s Darkness, or Alejandro Amenábar on a bad day, Spain has blazed a trail since the mid-’90s as the current go-to nation for effective Euro-chillers, picking up where Italy left off.* It’s probably safe to say, in fact, that Spain is keeping the Euro-horror genre healthy in the West while the Asians work their own occult potions over in their neck of the woods**. As someone who’s always preferred her horror movies with a European tincture, my appreciation for the Spanish industry is solid enough. It was Amenábar who got the pot boiling with Thesis back in 1996, and not Guillermo Del Toro—a Mexican who sometimes works with Spanish settings, history, talent and cash—but it was the ghostly ambience of Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, and his fascination with the abused child as a horror device, which have permeated several recent Spanish horrors (and a few Italian-Spanish co-productions like the first-rate I’m Not Scared by Gabriele Salvatores). Whole essays have been written about the symbol of the abused child in Spanish and Italian art in the post-fascist era, so it’s not as if Del Toro invented it; he did, however, appear to revive its onscreen popularity as an ooky trope in the Southern Europe horror-film industry, and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage is the latest Spanish trip that exploits our knee-jerk tendency to goosepimple whenever dead children emerge from the shadows.
Set a horror movie in an orphanage, and dead children are bound to figure. Belén Rueda plays Laura, a woman who purchased the orphanage that cared for her when she was a child. Laura has a kindly doctor-husband (Fernando Cayo), an adopted son named Simón (Roger Príncep), and earnest plans to turn the old orphanage into a home for half a dozen special-needs children. Simón, on his part, has a thing for imaginary friends—within the first few scenes, we learn that Simón’s original set of playmates has been supplanted by another five or six local ones, including a boy named Tomás who follows Simón and his mother home from a cave by the sea. When Simón disappears, what follows is a parent’s harrowing plunge into the waters of desperate measures and straws-grasping, iced over by all the best ghost-story fancies: clanging pipes, creaking doors, mediums, ratty dolls, secret rooms, and the creepiest kid’s party committed to film since the nanny-hanging scene in The Omen.
In this type of movie, everything rests on two things: the atmosphere the director is able to conjure up, and the protagonist’s performance. If you’re willing to let the film enfold you, Bayona’s atmosphere will lack for nothing, and Rueda’s Laura is probably one of the most convincing grief-stricken parents in a spook film since George C. Scott’s fragile widower in The Changeling. In both films, grief opens the door to curiosity, and Rueda uses her gaunt frame and face to good effect as she chases shadows real and ephemeral, emitting a lunatic maternalism that isn’t completely centered on her actual son. Like most Spanish ghost movies, The Orphanage is low-key in nearly every department, from lighting to dialogue to event. It offers only a few moments of true frenzy, relying mostly on its overall mood and the drama of the mother’s loss to build tension and work your affective knobs and buttons.
As far as horrific pitches go, I’d highlight the film’s establishing shot (in which little girls playing a Spanish version of red-light/green-light demonstrate just how creepy a kid’s game can appear through a composed frame), and the way this astonishing shot is reproduced (in a somewhat contrived fashion, admittedly) towards the film’s end when Laura takes it in her head to summon dead orphans with blackberry flan and a parent’s full attention. I’d also highlight the séance at the film’s mid-point—a structural accomplishment, in terms of narrative, which mimics the way The Changeling builds everything around its famous automatic-writing scene. I’m a sucker for a good séance on film, and The Orphanage provides a memorable one, complete with an off-putting medium (Geraldine Chaplin—of course), the latest PSI equipment, and keening children’s voices firm on communicating their intense state of pissed-offness over being made dead by fell caretakers.
The Orphanage, which was co-produced by Del Toro, is no The Devil’s Backbone or I’m Not Scared—it lacks the technical granite that underpins those two films, and it also lacks their superior scripts and general unity of effect. And though I’d never condemn a genre film—especially horror—for its plot-holes, The Orphanage has its inconsistencies, sacrificing a few goats of logic here and there in its desire to please the gods of uncanny; if you demand pristine plot engineering in your scary movies, 1) you’re a more discerning horror buff than me, and 2) this is probably the worst fault you’ll find in The Orphanage, beyond its proudly derivative internal elements. This film isn’t interested in innovation; like a Tarantino, Bayona is playing cinematic DJ with a huge store of catchy chirps and buzzes lifted from other sources—and if I can get off on the musical remixes of Erlend Øye or De Facto, then in fairness I should be able to get off on the same principle when it’s applied to film. The Orphanage fuses elements from three acclaimed horror predecessors into one movie: it has The Devil’s Backbone’s Spanish orphanage setting, The Changeling’s dead, disabled children as vengeful ghosts and that riveting séance centrepiece, and The Haunting’s troubled heroine fatally obsessed with an old mansion. In fact, of all three movies, I’d say The Changeling informs The Orphanage the most; fans of the former can play match-the-ingredient while watching the latter, and probably enjoy the experience in so far as both films share a great deal of classic atmospheric devices—not to mention atmosphere. The Orphanage plays with nothing we haven’t seen before, but by and large it plays with them well, and results in a capable recombination with only minor, genre-specific problems and an overall less-than feeling when compared to some of its sister films. — Ranylt Richildis
* Apologies to guys like Jorge Grau and Michele Soavi for my gross rhetorical oversimplification.
**Apologies also to Nick Willing, the British director of Close Your Eyes (2002), the best formal giallo produced since the Italian heyday.
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on January 12, 2008.)