Screened: October 17, 2008
Format: Blu-Ray - Picturehouse (2008)
Itâ€™s probably overstatement to suggest that Juan Anontio Bayonaâ€™s 2007 directorial debut, The Orphanage, would not have been possible without the box-office and critical triumph of Panâ€™s Labyrinth in 2006, but the latter filmâ€™s success certainly didnâ€™t hurt. Not only did Guillermo del Toroâ€™s fantasy film enhance the receptiveness of audiences to Spanish-language gothic cinema, but the directorâ€™s role as a producer for The Orphanage was prominently featured in the filmâ€™s promotion. Fortunately for Bayona, his film successfully escapes from del Toroâ€™s shadow, delivering a chilling and harrowing update on reliable horror conventions now mostly absent from American films.
Bayona and screenwriter Sergio SÃ¡nchez provide us with a landscape that is familiar, but also realized with efficiency and a pitch-perfect gothic sensibility. The essential elements for a conventional ghost story are all present: a creepy old house, a sensitive little child, buried secrets, a sÃ©ance, and a protagonist driven to the brink of desperation and madness. What makes The Orphanage an adept piece of horror film-making is Bayonaâ€™s assumption that we understand and appreciate the traditions of the genre. He stacks the film with dense layers of mystery, and packs in crucial details that reward viewers willing to pay attention and able to keep up.
The Orphanage was the first feature film for Bayona, who established himself directing music videos for Spanish pop groups. The directorâ€™s flair for evoking a classically gothic atmosphere abounds, as does his talent for absorbing and revisiting iconic ghost story devices in a refreshing manner. For the critical leading role of Laura, Bayona turned to Spanish actor BelÃ©n Rueda, who won a Goya award for her performance in director Alejandro AmenÃ¡barâ€™s 2004 Oscar-winner The Sea Inside. Despite The Orphanageâ€™s admittedly moody and gorgeous trappings, it is undeniably Ruedaâ€™s engaging performance as Laura that holds the film together. Ruedaâ€™s convoluted portrayalâ€”compassionate, arrogant, fearful, resolute, neuroticâ€”creates an absorbing study of parenting and grief that dwells within a sharply executed haunted house tale for the twenty-first century. In addition to Bayonaâ€™s skill in handling a story laden with twists and sleight-of-hand, it is the strength of Ruedaâ€™s performance that lends such anguish and horror to The Orphanageâ€™s final revelations.