This is the directorial debut of Juan Antonio Bayona and together with screenwriter Sergio Sanchez they have produced a modern ghost story that uses time honored traditions of horror and suspense to create a truly chilling piece of work. It centres around a small family unit, Laura (Belen Rueda) her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted nine-year-old son Simon (Roger Princep), who return to the barren, coastal orphanage where Laura spent some of her childhood in order to re-establish it as a home for handicapped children. Pretty soon she becomes aware of a new set of 'imaginary' friends that seem to join in with Simon's carefree games. Innocent treasure hunts soon lose their charm when the treasure becomes something you really care about.
The less you know about the plot of this film the more you'll enjoy and succumb to its intrigue. The Orphanage has been brought to the screen by executive producer Guillermo del Toro - who clearly shines as a major influence here. Like the dazzling Pan's Labyrinth it delves deep into the imaginary worlds of a child's imagination and the fear that can arise from an adults inability to follow. Like del Toro's own film The Devil's Backbone, The Orphanage recognises and exploits the basic fear we all have through the vulnerability of children.
In a genre populated by countless teen-slasher films this film's superior grasp of the things that make us all scared is stunning. Both aesthetically and stylistically this is a traditional horror film in the sense that it all takes place in an old house full of dark rooms and even darker secrets. The fear is delivered with restraint and tension recognising that there is nothing more scary than what we create in our own minds. But their is an inevitable contemporary unease that presides over this story. The constant stream of child abductions that populate our news broadcasts and the recent horrors that have been uncovered in the Haut de la Garenne children's home in Jersey all serve to enhance our dread at the events that unfold.
This film may be subtle in it's fear delivery approach but there were several moments where everyone in the cinema screamed uncontrollably. The film opens with the young Laura facing a tree saying "one, two , three: knock on the door," then turning around to see how close her friends have approached, so when, as an adult, she is forced to repeat the same game in a darkened room in order to tempt the child- ghosts out of their hiding places the fear was tangible and audible throughout the cinema. There is also a 'jaw-dropping' car accident and a sack-masked child to scare the living daylights out of you as well.
Ever since The Shining I have been intrigued by a film that claims to be truly frightening but have been disappointed on many occasions. It doesn't seem hard to push our fear buttons but so many film makers repeatedly get it wrong opting for gore and violence over suggestion and subtlety. Together with Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) this crop of directors have an intelligence and sensitivity which, when put withquality acting performances, create some truly terrifying cinema experiences.