Belen Rueda, Roger Princep, Fernando Cayo
Directed by J.A. Bayona
From its opening sequence, with credits revealed under pieces of torn paper in a style that evokes the Saul Bass-designed titles of Otto Preminger’s 1965 thriller Bunny Lake is Missing, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage is not afraid to flaunt its influences. One of those revealed credits is for executive producer Guillermo Del Toro, whose atmospheric Spain-set horror films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are another strong influence on The Orphanage, which as it happens is also an atmospheric horror film set in Spain.
Elements of any number of other moody ghost stories—from fellow Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others all the way back to The Turn of the Screw—show up in the film, and Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez do a perfectly competent job of re-creating the solemn, ominous tone of those past works while conveying little of their urgency or genuine emotion. The Orphanage is a languid supernatural thriller in which spotting the influences—a little Poltergeist here, a little Sixth Sense there—is more involving than the story itself.
Like Bunny Lake and recent moms-against-the-world thrillers Flightplan and the aptly titled The Forgotten, The Orphanage concerns a fiercely protective mother (Rueda) whose child, an adopted, HIV-positive boy named Simon (Princep), goes mysteriously missing. Mom Laura insists that Simon is alive even after everyone else (including her husband) has given up. She believes that some sort of spirits are haunting the former orphanage where she herself grew up, which is now her family’s home.
And spirits are haunting the sprawling mansion’s many hallways and hidden passages, of course, although it takes Bayona a damn long time to get to them, and his digressions along the way are often soporific. Rueda gives the movie whatever energy it has, channeling the fierce mama bear at least as well as Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore. But Princep is cloying as the supernaturally sensitive child, and Laura’s husband is a curious nonentity in the story. Bayona throws in lots of slow creaks and clangs, the art-house-horror equivalent of the jump moment, but none of them can rouse the movie from its terminal emotional torpor.