It’s obvious that The Orphanage, a new Spanish supernatural drama being groomed for Oscar attention, is meant to be more than a scare flick. It’s meant to be a meditation on loss and grief (which doesn’t exactly make it the first ghost story ever to address those themes, but whatever). Was it also meant to be so sedate and uninvolving? The Orphanage is confidently pieced together by first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona, a protege of the successful Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), who produced the film. It goes for dread over gore (with one exception), spooky sounds over cheap shocks (same exception). In theory I’m all for it. In practice it lost me.
Most of the movie’s charge comes from Belén Rueda as Laura, who was an orphan as a girl and now, at age 37, wants to re-open her old orphanage for disabled kids. Laura’s son Simón (Roger Princép) is adopted and HIV-positive — you know, just in case we wouldn’t feel sorry enough for him. Designing a supernatural tale around children is by no means new, but I confess some weariness with it. Rueda, however, roots the movie in the fierce reality of a woman struggling to keep her son from disappearing into an imaginary world. Simón sees ghosts — the ghosts of the orphan kids Laura grew up with. One of them is disfigured, his face hidden behind a burlap sack. This allows for a few fleeting creepy moments, though not enough to sustain the film.
Sergio G. Sanchéz’ script piles on the convolutions. Why are the orphans dead? Well, that has something to do with the burlap kid, whose mother …. Oh, skip it. Geraldine Chaplin is brought in as a psychic, who wanders around the orphanage while being filmed in night vision. There’s a laughably abrupt death-by-bus, leading to a shock image of the victim’s jaw bloodily unhinged; too bad we’ve just seen Laura’s husband trying to give the victim mouth-to-mouth resuscitation seconds earlier.
The Orphanage turns vaguely depressing, a fable in which the bereaved longs for death in order to join lost ones forever. Unfortunately, the script lacks the artistry necessary to marry horror and drama, and Bayona is no del Toro; the movie has no wildness, no beauty. It’s a rather dreary experience, and eventually even Belén Rueda’s performance begins to seem shrill in relation to the narrative dead zone around her. And the movie uses damaged kids a little too cavalierly, employing them for eerie pathos without bothering to find out much about them. (Apparently, no one cared enough to look into the orphans’ deaths; it’s as if the film didn’t care either.)
There’s promise here, if Bayona finds a sharper (or more poetic) screenplay next time. Bayona has a knack for the usual spook tactics, though not much that horror fans haven’t seen before. To craft a truly unsettling ghost story with staying power, a director needs to be a little crazy — needs to understand in his or her bones why kids are afraid to go down to the basement or have their feet sticking out of bed. Bayona has a mechanical understanding of those things, but on the evidence here, he doesn’t feel them enough to make us feel them too.