The Orphanage (2007)
In contrast the old days of Spanish horror, these day the industry is inhabited by one giant fish: Guillermo del Toro. He's not necessarily just a Spanish phenomenon, having produced quite a number of Hollywood hits and acclaimed films, but mention del Torro and many times the first thing that comes to mind is Pan's Labyrinth. It managed to gain international fame, much more so than a lot of his blockbusters did. It, along with The Devil's Backbone, helped to move Spanish horror away from its exploitation history and to something much more stylish.
Thus, I was willing to break one of my big rules due to word of mouth on The Orphanage. Usually I steer away from anything that says "presented by" or "produced by so-in-so that made such-and-such." It's usually the desperate ploy of a movie studio that knows it has a dud but hopes to get a few people gullible enough to think a famous director, or at least one with some popular indie cred at the time, made a film they may not have seen. It's not on the level of sketchiness as most movies from Asylum, but it is tricky, and gets people to see stuff like Wishmaster. In this case that's not a problem, as the reason it's "presented" by Guillermo del Toro is because writer Sergio G. Sánchez didn't have any experience behind his name, and therefore no one in Spain would produce The Orphanage. He still didn't direct, but J.A. Bayona, who up to that point was known for music videos, got the job.
Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) move into the old orphanage where Laura spent her early childhood before being adopted herself. Laura plans to open it up for special needs children once again, like it was when she was there. Simón is quite precocious, but like the children she wishes to help, he has his needs as well. One of the most challenging things is that he insists he has imaginary friends and, soon, starts having even more, including a boy named Tomás (Oscar Casas).
Things are going well until a visit from a social worker named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) turns sinister, and soon Simón finds out that he's adopted. Angry at the deceit, he lets his rage out while his parents are hosting an event to introduce the house, and then goes missing. While Carlos thinks there is a logical explanation, Laura becomes more and more convinced that he was taken by something supernatural. With the help of Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin), a medium that comes to her aid, she finds out that something awful did happen in the orphanage after she left, and she begins to suspect if she can uncover what it was it may lead her to Simón.
In many ways The Orphanage is a traditional haunted house mystery story. It has lots of atmosphere, a slowly developing story, and many of the typical elements one would expect. What it doesn't have are some of the same pat answers. If one is looking for "unspeakable evil" of some sort, or twisted supernatural monsters, they'll be disappointed. In many ways the fact that there are ghosts haunting the orphanage takes a back seat to what is really important, which is finding out what happened to Simón.
Belén Rueda and Fernando Cayo are convincing as a husband and wife, and I am glad for once that a more healthy relationship is shown in one of these films, even if it is realistically tinged with grief. Carlos never neglects Laura and often supports her decisions even if he thinks that the medium and those around her are grifters, and is forthright in telling her so. Often it is easy to turn the husband into an uncaring villain, but, although he isn't the main focus, he is obviously suffering Simón's loss as heavily as she is. It's this core relationship that makes the finale of the movie that much more emotional.
My only major problem was a gore scene after a traffic accident that just looked silly, especially when so much of the movie was being serious about its subject matter. The makeup is horrendous, not in a good way, but in an almost laughable manner, especially since it's supposed to lead up to one of the big reveals about what happened at the orphanage.
Although moderately successful in the United States, and sent by Spain as its entry for the Oscars, it was the biggest movie in Spain in 2007. It outsold many of the American blockbusters of the same year, and it has gained a good reputation over the years. Fortunately for Bayona he started to get the same attention as del Torro, even if it has led in recent years to directing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and episodes of the controversial Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power television show.
The Orphanage (2007)
Time: 105 minutes
Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Geraldine Chaplin
Director: J.A. Bayona