Laura (Rueda) returns to the orphanage that was once her home with the intention of reopening it. As soon as her son (Príncep) finds an imaginary friend who once lived in the same institution, things take a definite turn for the spooky.
The delicate fingerprints of Guillermo Del Toro are visible all over The Orphanage. The Pan’s Labyrinth director may have just served only as producer on Juan Antonio Bayona’s crisp horror thriller, but the pair share the same zeal for the fantastical and a curiously romantic view of terror. It’s also clear neither has ever met a shadowy corner they couldn’t put to gainful employment.
Following Del Toro’s blueprint is no bad thing, as Bayona shares not only a rich aesthetic with his mentor, but also a sense of priority for story before scare, which, of course, makes the scares that much more effective. This is not horror for those who queue up to see Saw on opening night with a thirst for cider and gore. This is more in the groove of The Shining, with a constant sense of unease achieved not by shocks and blood, but by good scripting, great acting and a well-told story. There are respectful nods to classic frighteners as divergent as Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby and The Others, but there’s never any slip into mere imitation.
Bayona doesn’t come armed with any incredible new ideas, but it’s his back-to-basics style and lack of trickery that makes the film feel fresh among the usual pop video horror clones. The debutant Spanish director builds his film on one of the genre’s most solid foundations: a sprawling, empty, isolated building (the titular orphanage) complete with groaning staircases and an outside carousel that squeaks balefully whenever anyone looks out the window. With mood instantly established, Bayona settles into telling his story and building up layers of fear like lacquer.
Slowly we slip into the world of Laura (Belén Rueda). We see her past life as a young resident of the orphanage, one of the few without obvious disability and so the only one to find a new family. Driven by either ghosts or affection, she returns to the now abandoned building to run it as a home for a new generation of foundlings, taking her husband (Cayo) and her son, Simon (Príncep) with her, about whose own past she hasn’t been entirely honest. In this new home, Simon finds friendship with an imaginary (or is he?) chum who likes to hide in caves on the beach and play games that show too much knowledge of Simon and his family. To tell you much more of the plot from there would be to rob you of many of the treats within.
Suffice to say, something goes wrong with the arrival of a child in a horrific sack mask and an old lady (Carulla) with an interest in Laura’s son (and the most patently absurd glasses this side of Elton John), who opens up old wounds and provides the movie’s only concessions to traditional scares – creative and well enough executed to have the person in front picking your popcorn out of their hair. Laura ends up in a desperate situation that takes her further into contact with the ghosts of her past, both literally and figuratively.
Through all its meanderings and flip-flops between ghost story and crime procedural, the story is riveted together by Belén Rueda’s performance, a turn consistently on the brink of emotional collapse. It’s largely down to her that the film is just as saddening as it is scary. The finest sequence comes when Laura’s fraught energy is offset by the eerie calm of a psychic, played by Geraldine Chaplin. She explores the orphanage, lit in the sickly green of night vision that instantly makes anything 15% scarier, looking for the spirits of former lodgers as Laura watches on a set up of monitors. There’s no gore, but the editing, sound and divergent emotions in play make it chilling, a scare sequence for the ages.
With the depth of story he mines, Bayona needs a killer ending to sew everything up and he very nearly achieves it. The climax is an emotional wallop, but it opens up a few questions that it can’t quite answer, and leaves some loose ends trailing.
However, a few head scratches can be forgiven when set off by such a high level of spine chills.
A good old-fashioned horror in the best possible way, this is a beautifully told, terrifying ghost story that lingers with you long after the shivers have stopped.