The Orphanage

ON

Opening Friday, December 28th

Cast:

Belén Rueda as Laura

Fernando Cayo as Carlos

Geraldine Chaplin as Aurora

Montserrat Carulla as Benigna

Mabel Rivera as Pilar

Andrés Gertrúdix as Andrés

Roger Príncep as Simón

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Review:

There’s something to be said for movies that play at TIFF after debuting at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year, but when they also play the New York Film Festival the following month, you know there’s something special at hand. It doesn’t hurt that Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut “The Orphanage” (Picturehouse) has Guillermo del Toro’s name on it as a producer, because his Spanish language ghost movie “The Devil’s Backbone” is a fine precursor for this horror film with a heart.

It’s a sad fact that it might be hard for Bayona to get out from behind the shadow of his far-too-famous producer, because del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone,” a ghost film set during the Spanish Civil War, is beloved among both the horror and art film crowd. That be as it may, certain aspects of “The Orphanage” set it apart and give it an identity of its own, particularly its look at how a mother deals with the loss of a child set amidst familiar horror trappings.

It begins with a scene at an orphanage with a group of young kids playing a game similar to “Red Light, Green Light” before we see a young girl named Laura be picked up and taken away by her new adoptive parents. Decades later, Laura’s husband has bought the orphanage with plans to turn it into a home for disabled children, and they’ve moved in with their 7-year-old son Simón. The boy immediately starts acting odd (or odder) talking about an imaginary friend named Tómas. At a party for the opening of the hospital, Simón mysteriously disappears, and Laura immediately suspects a strange old woman who has been lurking around the house. Months later and Laura is still convinced her boy is still alive or that his spirit is haunting the creepy old house. To say much more about the general plot might give far too much away, but there’s a lot of depth at play here and many levels to the story and the characters, which slowly unfold as we learn more about what happened with the orphanage after Laura was taken away as a child.

For the first 20 minutes of the movie, you might feel as if you know exactly what’s going on and what’s going to happen, as it goes for the big scares and other cliches of ghost movies, particularly the creepy kid variety as epitomized by “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others” (the latter also directed by a Spanish filmmaker). At one point after Simón’s disappearance, there’s even an eerie seance scene that will immediately remind some of the Zelda Rubinstein moments in the original “Poltergeist.”

That said, this is a incredibly creepy movie with lots of bonafide scares that might make you jump out of your seat if you’ve gotten bored or laissez faire about what might happen next, and once it starts, it never lets up as it keeps piling up the scares and surprises as it builds to a surprisingly poignant conclusion.

Belén Rueda gives a stunning performance as Laura, and she has to do a lot more than act scared and scream a lot, as might often be the case. This really is a performance on a par with that of Nicole Kidman in “The Others,” although there’s an added level from the grief over her missing boy and the fear that she’ll never get him back.

Bayona’s certainly a director to watch, as he clearly has a sharp eye for visuals and and for creating a mood, and it will be interesting to see if he decides to stay in the horror genre or try to explore other avenues for his next film, because one gets the impression from this movie that he’s a director that can do anything.