The Orphanage (El Orfanato)
It’s only March but you’re unlikely to see a better ghost story at the cinema this year than The Orphanage. First-time director Juan Antonio Bayona has obviously taken great inspiration from his producer Guillermo del Toro, whose excellent The Devil’s Backbone, along with Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others and Jack Clayton’s fabulous 1961 chiller The Innocents, are the models for this superior horror that recently picked up seven Spanish Goya Awards.
There are few things more eerie at the cinema than obsessive, broken women cooped up reflecting on childhood, whether their own or someone else’s. Think Bette Davis’ and Mia Farrow’s titular characters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Rosemary’s Baby respectively. Laura (Belén Rueda) can now be added to list for her composed performance in The Orphanage that sees her visibly age from beaming sunflower to haggard weed as she stresses over the fate of her son.
Laura was raised in an orphanage and now, 30 years later, she returns to her childhood home with husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their young son Simon (Roger Princep). Taking over the establishment as the governess she has decided to turn the orphanage into a home for sick and disabled children. Everything seems to be coming up roses until a sinister social worker (Monserrat Caulia) turns up and Simon inadvertently discovers that he is adopted and HIV positive. When Simon draws a picture of a boy with a sack on his head, and invents imaginary playmates, Laura starts to feel a creeping sense of déjâ vu.
The key to the success of this story is the edge-of-the-seat suspense, which constantly threatens one kind of scare but produces another. Throughout, it’s impossible to tell how much of what is happening is real or merely taking place in Laura’s mind; there’s even a brilliant sting in the story.
The Orphanage is confirmation, if any were needed, that Spain has overtaken J-horror (Japanese horror) as the place to go for your cinema scares.
Selected release from Fri 21 Mar.