Here's a few questions I would ask my realtor if I were on the market for a run-down mansion in the isolated countryside of Spain (or any other nation for that matter): Have you observed doors opening and closing of their own accord? Have you had any indications that I may need to perform an exorcism? Or any ritual where the phrase "Anoint thyself with the blood of this lamb" would come up as a matter of course?
If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes", that's pretty much a deal-breaker right there. Even "Maybe" will send me running for the hills.
So, I appreciated that The Orphanage, directed by Juan Bayona, gave us a reason, though a contrived one, for having our protagonists live at this mansion. Laura (Belen Rueda) grew up there, when it was an orphanage, and wants to come back and start a new one for special needs children. She and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have adopted a child, Simon (Roger Princep), and will soon bring another five or six children to stay with them.
The Orphanage is all about a slow build of suspense. Bayona uses the camera expertly without flash. No Michael Bay quick cuts here. He understands a still camera where something is just outside the frame is hold-your-breath tense.
The entire story is an appeal to our fairy tale instincts. Simon is a lonely boy with imaginary friends. Early in the film, he goes to the beach with Laura and, much to her exasperation, finds a new invisible buddy in a cave.
I put my head in my hands and groaned when Simon laid down a trail of shells to lead his friend back to the orphanage. You idiot kid, I thought, now you've killed us all. The pile of shells that appear at the door of the orphanage the next morning provide a satisfyingly creepy image.
When the inevitable tragedy strikes the family, Bayona gives us set piece after set piece of brilliant scares. Which is both the movie's success and failure. We move from one sequence to the next and, internally, each scene is excellent. A psychic comes to the mansion to help the family with their problems. We are forced to watch her progress through a video camera; the twice-removed nature of the extended scene created what was probably the most suspenseful ten minutes I've spent in the theater in ages.
But . . . the story itself doesn't hold together as a whole. There are jarring moments where I was very much made aware of the artifice. When Laura throws a party for the families of her new students, the entire setup is designed to create false urgency, and also one of its few "Why don't you just . . . ?" moments.
I found that discussions with friends diminished my initial enjoyment of the film because it was too easy to find plot holes once my heart-rate was normal again. "Wait, so when did Laura leave the orphanage originally? How was that wallpaper there?" The story is just a disconnected trail of shells left on the ground, leading us between set pieces.
This isn't actually a movie-killer for me. I'm a sucker for style and The Orphanage is nothing if not stylish. And, without relinquishing any manliness, I ended up curled in my seat for chunks of the movie; and I observed a lot of between-the-fingers watching for my wife. On that scale, The Orphanage is quite a success.
But I have to knock it for not knowing how to get from one point to the next in a way I could reasonably describe the next day without having to scramble to fill in the gaps on behalf of the writer.
Also, stop comparing this movie to Pan's Labyrinth. That they're both Spanish-language horror films is all they have in common. The "Presented by Guillermo del Toro" is pretty much the definition of "mixed blessing" for Bayona. The Orphanage is worth watching on its own merits, as long as you're willing to not ask questions afterwards.