Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona
Cast: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep
Going in to Catalan horror The Orphanage (El Orfonato), I was a bit worried because all the adverts for the film had Guillermo del Toro's name prominently displayed above the title, as if to suggest that it was actually his creation - no, the onscreen direction is credited to one Juan Antonio Bayona (del Toro merely serves as one of half a dozen producers). The gimmick of top-billing a big name producer is usually done to get asses in seats, which is fine by me - often, producers' personal touches give a film all it needs to be more than the sum of its parts (think Val Lewton), which is exactly what The Orphanage is. Now, don't recoil in terror (that'll come later) when you see Bayona's name on the screen as director - this one has del Toro's fingerprints all over it, and Bayona is clearly paying homage to the master - this film plays out very much like a companion piece to del Toro's own 2001 effort The Devil's Backbone (El Espinoza del Diablo), in that both share ghost children, a haunted orphanage (or school), strong ties to the past (whether personal or historical), and both come across as strange Spanish versions of Grimm fairy tales.
My main (however minor) problem with this film was that it wasn't able to sustain a sense of rising dread throughout. I was expecting a ghost story in the same vein as The Others (or better yet, The Innocents), but this seemed kind of.....obvious? I don't know, I feel bad criticizing new original horror, and while this one is certainly slick, it seems to move in stops and starts rather than a slow ascension towards a terrifying finale. There certainly were some very frightening scenes, but for the most part they played as shock elements and surface distraction rather than providing deeply atmospheric chills, which is what the film seemed to be striving for. The face of the dead Benigna, the appearance of Tomas in the house at the birthday party, and, especially, the sequence with Geraldine Chaplin's spirit advisor, were all particularly hair-raising, but overall, the movie seemed to lack cohesion; perhaps a sign of Bayona's inexperience. But there is a lot to like here, and it is certainly a film worth seeing. Simon's voice is inadvertently hilarious and heart-warming, and it sounds like, as my sister put it, "a child smoker". Sounds good to me. And the masked Tomas, I'll mention again, is terrifying. Oddly, I found the unmasked, deformed Tomas not frightening at all, but incredibly sad and galvanizing - that was one of the most "real" moments of the film to me; I was able to identify with Tomas' alienation and the overwhelming, if unintentional, cruelty of children.
The final reveal where Simon's fate is mapped out to Laura is simultaneously bone-chilling and heartbreaking. If it was my movie (which it certainly is NOT, and until I have the guts/motivation to get up and make my own, none will be), I would have ended it right there, with a devastated Laura in full realization of the awful consequences of her rash actions, and having no other choice but to go on with the guilt. But as in so many "fairy-tale" flicks, Bayona felt the need to have a neat wrap-up with parallels drawn between his story and that of Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys.
I'll admit, I was moved - but only briefly - by the ending. Afterwards, I was disappointed by the filmmaker's choice to take the easy out and side with sentimentality over hard truths. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the film, just don't see del Toro's name on the poster and go in all glassy-eyed expecting Pan's Labyrinth 2, because that, The Orphanage ain't.