American filmmakers appear to have forgotten how to make horror films. The current crop of practitioners is pretty much split into two equally misguided camps: One mistakes torture and dismemberment for suspense and chills, and the other views vampires as nocturnal kung fu action heroes. M. Night Shyamalan had promise, but the thrill has been gone from his work for some time now. Fortunately, a wave of young Latin directors has arrived on the scene to show Hollywood precisely how it should be done.
Last year, Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro gave us the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, a ravishing nightmare about a child struggling to understand why her mother has emotionally abandoned her. This year he’s making the rounds to champion first-time Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona, whose The Orphanage is the converse of Labyrinth: a ravishing nightmare in which a mother struggles to make sense of her child’s absence. It’s Spain’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Belen Rueda (The Sea Inside) plays the central role of Laura, a thirtysomething wife and mother who has moved her family into the sprawling former orphanage where she herself was raised until her adoption. She and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have plans to restore the place and turn it into a home for kids with special needs. While he awaits the arrival of his new playmates, the couple’s 7-year-old son Simon (Roger Princep) gets to know a group of invisible new friends. Laura is unconcerned at first. After all, the boy has had imaginary friends before. Plus, she has more pressing worries: Her son doesn’t know it, but he’s adopted and HIV positive.
Laura begins to suspect dark forces are at work soon enough, however, when Simon draws a picture of his friends. What freaks her out isn’t that one of these playmates has a jaggedly stitched burlap sack over his head. It’s the fact that she recognizes them as the flesh-and-blood children she played with when she lived in the orphanage.
Laura barely has time to register this disturbing development before events take a turn for the weirder. The boy in the burlap sack appears in a hallway, then at a party celebrating the arrival of the disabled kids — horrors that pale in comparison to the realization that somehow, amid the commotion, Simon has vanished.
Sergio G. Sanchez’s script is a devilishly clever contraption with more sudden turns, pop-up terrors and trapdoors than a dozen amusement park haunted houses. One minute it’s a ghost story evocative of The Others (directed by fellow Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar). The next, it’s the story of a mother and father searching for their missing child, distributing posters, working with police — the sorts of things we see anguished parents do on television with tragic regularity.
The Orphanage takes place in two worlds and on multiple levels, but it resonates so powerfully because of its adherence to a single theme: the grip of a mother’s love. There’s a remarkable sequence in which Geraldine Chaplin appears as a medium, summoned by the parents after months have passed and the police have run out of leads. In a séance unlike any I’ve seen on screen, she moves about the darkened orphanage, following the sound of children’s voices. Are they voices from the past, the present, or both? The seer knows what the audience won’t even suspect until very late in the film. When Laura asks whether she’ll be reunited with her son, the answer isn’t yes or no, but that the outcome will depend on how far she’s willing to go.
The film’s final twist ranks with the most satisfying in the genre’s history — in my opinion, right up there with the finale of The Sixth Sense and, indeed, far more moving. In Bayona’s artfully lensed, meticulously imagined debut, the otherworldly and the ordinary overlap such that in the end it’s not so much about a haunted house as it is about a haunted heart.