I'm not exactly sure what it is about orphanages that strike such fear into the hearts of Spanish filmmakers, but if the resulting films turn out to be as excellent as Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Juan Antonio Bayona's debut, The Orphanage, I'm certainly not about to complain. (A third example, Jaume Balaguero's Fragile, is certainly stylish and watchable enough, but in no way is it on the same level as the other two.) The comparisons to Del Toro's mini-masterpiece are logical enough; the masterful filmmaker worked as a hands-on producer for The Orphanage -- and it shows.
The story is a smoothly simple one: Laura and Carlos are a loving married couple who have an adopted son called Simon. The family decides to purchase and renovate the old orphanage where Laura was raised -- and of course little Simon immediately comes across a bunch of new 'imaginary' friends. The orphanage is located next to a creepy old lighthouse, a beautiful beach and a foreboding cave -- locations that provide Bayona with a very effective palette. Without spoiling anything: We're told that young Simon has a deadly disease that requires daily medications, which makes his disappearance from a 'grand re-opening' party cause for serious concern.
Several months go by and Simon is still missing, but his adopted mother refuses to accept that he's gone. Needless to say ... she's right. Toss in the arrival of a creepy old nurse, the intermittent presence of a disturbed child with a sack over his head, and a few cops and parapsychologists who have their own theories -- and you have a meticulously-crafted and powerfully atmospheric little ghost story. But The Orphanage is much more than just another 'haunted building' story. Bolstered by a flawless lead performance by Belen Rueda, The Orphanage is out to chill your bones, to be sure, but there's also a great air of mystery (and a wonderfully welcome sense of poignancy) that elevates the film beyond that of a simple thriller. And while some of the themes and ideas may feel familiar to those who follow the 'south of the border' horror exports, there's more than enough originality and freshness to satisfy those fans. (There's a good reason the movie has earned raves and awards all across the festival circuit.)
Del Toro's fingerprints are all over The Orphanage, but it's first-time feature director Bayona strikes a fantastic balance between well-earned chills and strangely heart-touching emotion. (And what an ending!) The film seems awash in both bittersweet nostalgia and stylishly grim atmosphere -- plus (of course) there are several solid jolts and even some strongly effective moments of graphic nastiness. Half-drama and half-horror, The Orphanage is entirely captivating from start to finish. And if those Spanish movie-makers have a few more 'creepy orphanage' stories to tell, well, I'm definitely not sick of the sub-genre just yet. And whatever Mr. Bayona offers up next, you can bet I'll be first in line to check it out.