- Rated R
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All photos © Picturehouse
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ne of the more buzzed-about entries at last year’s Sundance film festival, the Spanish ghost story “The Orphanage,” was given an extra promotional boost when “Pan’s Labyrinth” director Guillermo del Toro signed on as the official “presenter.” Much like Quentin Tarantino’s name has done in the past for genre films like “Iron Monkey” and “Hero,” the appearance of del Toro’s name gave fans of the Mexican filmmaker something to look forward to. Unfortunately, while first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona employs the same visual style as the Academy Award-nominee, “The Orphanage” is far from an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It’s been 30 years since Laura (Belén Rueda) last resided at the Good Shepherd Orphanage, but she’s finally returned with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) with plans to reopen the seaside home as a school for disabled kids. Simón isn’t like most children – along with being HIV positive, he’s also a bit of a loner with an affinity for creating imaginary friends – and after meeting a new “friend” named Tomás in a nearby cave, he suddenly disappears. While the police search for the missing boy, Laura begins to entertain the possibility that her son’s imagination is more real than she thought – eventually pulling her into a frightening game with Tomás, whom she believes is the ghost of a fellow orphan she never knew existed.
If there’s one thing to take away from “The Orphanage,” it’s that Bayona has done a commendable job of creating a film that’s both beautiful and visually disturbing. The cinematography is minimalist yet breathtaking, and the character of Tomás (a creepy kid wearing a sewn-up potato sack for a mask) is one of the most effective plot devices of any horror film in the past decade. It’s just too bad that neither makes the story more interesting. At a seemingly lean 105 minutes, the film feels more like 205 minutes as it chugs along to its big twist ending (ahem, Señor Shyamalan at your service), and though the story gains some momentum in the middle with the introduction of a group of ghost hunters, the random change in direction doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film’s tone.
Fans of the genre have seen this story played out several times over the last few years (“The Others," “Dark Water”), and Sergio Sánchez' script doesn’t take any steps in improving upon the classic formula. There’s nothing particularly cliché about the whole set-up, but there’s a good share of all-too-convenient plot holes that come back to bite the story in the ass in the final minutes. Are the ghosts real or just a figment of Laura’s imagination? Unfortunately, you never really find out, and while “Pan’s Labyrinth” offered up a similar conclusion, it did so far more convincingly – giving evidence to support both theories. “The Orphanage” is simply content with getting through the entire story without tripping over its own flaws, and though it’s definitely better than most supernatural thrillers, it doesn’t belong in the same camp as del Toro or any of his films.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Repetition be damned, the single-disc release of “The Orphanage” features about 10 minutes worth of interviews that are generously recycled throughout the course of nearly an hour of bonus material. It’s a bit annoying to hear the filmmakers discuss the same ideas over and over again, so you might just want to stick to the 17-minute making-of featurette “When Laura Grew Up” for your behind-the-scenes fix. Also included are a series of brief production featurettes (Tomás’ Secret Room”) and cast auditions (“Rehearsal Studio”), but they’re much too short to enjoy.