The Orphanage

| January 2, 2008

As executive producer of this Spanish ghost story, Guillermo del Toro’s name is front and center in the trailer and advertisements. With the success of his Pan’s Labyrinth last year, it only makes sense to do so. But for those audience members looking for a further blast of original and dark fairy tale storytelling, The Orphanage may be a disappointment. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. It just never had a chance to live up to the hype associated with del Toro’s name.
Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) buy the abandoned orphanage where Laura lived as a little girl until she was adopted. They plan to raise their young son Simon (Roger Princep) there as they turn the orphanage into a home for children with special needs. When Simon begins accruing imaginary friends at an alarming rate and Laura receives an intrusive visit from a creepy old woman with a bit too much knowledge about the family, things quickly turn sour for the well-meaning couple.
When his new “friends” tell Simon some dark truths about his past it leads to a serious fight with Laura. Shortly after the fight, Simon goes missing and Laura starts to hear noises in the house and finds clues that lead her to believe the orphanage is haunted. It isn’t long before she is blaming the ghosts haunting the house for the disappearance of Simon.
Director J.A. Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sanchez have crafted a solid genre movie that takes elements from several classics in the haunted house canon. Knowledgeable film fans will see bits of The Haunting, Poltergeist and The Others. While Bayona uses these borrowed pieces well, his film never quite gels into its own creation. When the final image has faded to black, the viewer is left remembering those ghost stories that The Orphanage takes its inspiration from instead of the film just viewed.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the film. It’s got more than half a brain, which is something I can’t say for most of the dreck that Hollywood is putting out in the genre. There are some decent scares, one shocking moment and several eerie shots to amp up the tension and atmosphere. The film looks great and obviously a lot of care was put into making it the best possible film that the script would allow, from the effective performances right down to a beautifully gothic production design.
Still, a little effort by the filmmakers to carve out their own identity for the film would have been appreciated. There’s nothing wrong with creating an effective genre movie and Bayona obviously has the talent to elevate an average script. I just hope that with his next film, he takes on a more original story.

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