Director Juan Antonio Bayona’s feature-film debut, a fantasy-fable thriller written by Sergio G. Sánchez, comes very highly recommended. But why? It’s chock full of standard-issue thriller tropes. Um, a haunted orphanage? In a big, old, dark house? With a bad secret in the basement? A desperate, fiercely maternal woman, begging her husband to leave her alone in there for a couple of days to, you know, just figure things out?
Yes, it’s all there. But boilerplate it isn’t. Unlike the prefab shock-schlock offered up by Hollywood to teenagers of all ages, The Orphanage avoids cynical gimmickry and condescension. It’s harrowing in a more sophisticated way, and a fine example of why we’ve come to expect some kind of elegance from Spanish-language horror films. The executive-producer imprimatur of Pan’s Labryinth director Guillermo Del Toro can’t hurt, either.
Another plus: plot-wise, we’re in the territory of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Laura (Belén Rueda) and her agreeable physician husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have just bought the seaside orphanage from which she was adopted 30-odd years ago, and she’s eager to reopen it as a home for disabled children. So they’re moving in, along with their seven-year-old, Simón (Roger Princep), who knows neither that he too was adopted nor that he was born with HIV, but is otherwise just like a regular kid: playful, partial to bedtime stories and imaginary friends, and, especially when photographed from revering low angles, with his puppyish eyes agleam, particularly adorable.
The young family’s new life brings challenges. Dim and musty from disuse, their property requires some fixing up. (In one of the movie’s signature reversals of expectation, the orphanage is revealed to have seemed like an idyll when Laura first lived there; only after she left did it become thriller-appropriately sinister.) A few features, it turns out, need to be child-proofed — like, for instance, the caves and jagged rocks on which the ocean breaks nearby. Also, tense negotiations ensue with a peculiar old woman (Montserrat Carulla) somehow connected to the house’s past.
And, not long after their arrival, Laura discovers a newcomer to her son’s stable of invisible playmates. This one’s fond of a special game: He steals something of priceless sentimental value and stashes it away somewhere, leaving only a trail of clues to follow toward the hope of recovery. Now, had this little ditty not apparently been devised by a figment of his subconscious, Simón’s obvious aptitude for it might make his mother proud. Instead, she worries. Then Simón himself becomes the stolen thing. Then she freaks.
Which is perfectly understandable. What follows, though paranormally intense, isn’t scary so much as deeply unnerving; Bayona has a knack for dreadful suspense. With his creeping camera and increasingly shadowy, sickly hues, he closes in on Laura, who after six months of Simón’s absence becomes convinced he’s alive but in the custody of some highly unconventional abductors. In one nail-biting scene, she brings in a medium (Geraldine Chaplin, herself a spectral vision) to help, even despite Carlos’ pragmatic entreaties that it’s an empirical matter best handled by the police — that, in fact, Laura’s glimpses of the house’s phantasmal history might really be grief-induced hallucinations.
It’s here that Rueda’s raw but not at all vain performance is at its best: She conveys not just Laura’s sorrow and fear but also the fraying trust for her husband with subtle and chilling precision. Obviously she’s wise to Sánchez and Bayona’s interest in bigger themes: the self-propagating trauma of bereavement, with its contamination of safe-seeming spaces; the deeper fears about our capacities as caregivers; and the more unsettling aspects of Peter Pan mythology.
The filmmakers enjoy their high-wire walk on the frontier between bedtime stories and ghost stories, it turns out, because both are rich with universal, spiritual philosophy. What The Orphanage really has to offer is a stylish and devastating sketch of how death can strain and define family dynamics. Bayona makes more than a few nods to thrillers past, including Hitchcock’s Psycho, whose horrors, importantly, weren’t at all supernatural. Most significantly, though, he makes the material his own — treating it, and its audience, with maturity and respect.