Spooky goings on in darkened houses with frightened women being tormented by creepy children may well have recently been the preserve of Japanese and Korean cinema in the last decade, but it must not be forgotten that Spanish cinema has a fine tradition of ghost stories, too. The more recent likes of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) and Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s Civil War-set The Devil’s Backbone (2001) have resurrected this tradition, a sequence which is now continued by this, the debut picture from director Juan Antonio Bayona.
To an extent this is fairly standard Poltergeist-like genre fare; a couple and their son move into an old orphanage, with the intention of setting it up as a home for children with learning difficulties. The son, Simón, is known for his having imaginary friends, but this new house seems to have inspired him to fabricated other, newer ones. For parents Laura and Carlos, this new development is hardly out of character, and so is of little immediate concern to them. However, when these ‘friends’ appear to be playing games with the family, as well as revealing troubling information to the young boy, things begin to take a sinister turn.
As an introduction to their potential new carers, the new orphans are thrown a party, where they all don different, slightly grotesque, masks. But after an altercation with her son, and then a violent encounter with a mysterious masked child, Simón vanishes, leading to a high-publicity search for the boy. But the continued strange goings-on in the house, coupled with a visit from a medium, convince Laura that what has actually happened is that Simón has been abducted by his imaginary friends, and that she must play their games in order to find her child again. But how much of what she perceives is really happening, and how much is tied to her memories and fears?
The film is played for psychological shocks in a Hitchcockian vein at times, the orphanage at times feeling like the Manderlay of Rebecca (1940), but also nods towards the aforementioned The Others. But one of the main things that raises this above the bog-standard haunted house story is Sergio G. Sánchez’s delicately balanced script, and its sensitive and complex rendering of the subject matter of adoption. The film’s first scene shows the young Laura, a resident at this very orphanage herself, playing with her friends before learning that she is about to be whisked away to new foster-parents. We shortly learn that Simón is an adoptee himself, and can guess that it is Laura’s attachment to her own anonymous past, as well as to Simón’s, that has perhaps inspired her to reopen the place where she spent her happy childhood days.
The theme of the loss of childhood immediately brings to mind two of the greatest works of Spanish cinema, Victor Erice’s El Espíritu de la Colmena [The Spirit of the Beehive] (1973), and Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos [Raise Ravens] (1976). But in terms of reference points, the most striking influence would be the work of Guillermo Del Toro, Executive Producer on the project. This film, like his films, takes the traditions of gothic horror and fairy tale, and adds intertextual references to classic horror cinema to create something both familiar yet strangely fresh. There are times when stock archetypes feel a little creaky – the rationalist sceptical husband versus the imaginative wife has surely been done to death by now – but in general its conformity to horror convention is strictly from neccesity. The jumps, when they come, are thoroughly satisfying, reminiscent of the grand giallo tradition of Don’t Look Now and Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso.
On the acting front, a powerhouse performance from the ever-watchable Belén Rueda is at the centre, showing just how inadequate the Jennifer Love-Hewitts and Sarah Michelle Gellars Hollywood usually throws into its versions of these films really are. And what an impressive range first-time director Bayona shows here – infusing the film with enough subtlety and nuance to flag him up as a future star filmmaker, following in GDT’s rather large footsteps. The Orphanage is a reminder to an audience fed on too many Hostels and Saws that genuinely intelligent, disturbing genre horror is still possible in today’s cinema.
**EDIT** Of course, i completely forgot the obvious references to two truly great films, Hideo Nakata’s Honogurai mizu no soko kara [Dark Water] (2002) and Jack Clayton’s masterpiece The Innocents (1961).