Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage is another haunted house picture, but it's more reminiscent of Frankenstein in its occupation of rummaging for spare parts. Henry James is vigorously plundered, and movie fans will note stylistic and plot similarities to recent thrillers from Alejandro Amenábar and Guillermo Del Toro, who not coincidentally produces The Orphanage.
Laura (Belén Rueda), once an orphan, returns to the orphanage as an adult to open a home for sick children and raise an orphan of her own, Simón (Roger Príncep). That goal proves easier said than done: it's complicated by the guilty fear that HIV-positive Simón will learn that Laura and husband Carlos (Fernando Caya) aren't his birth parents, the arrival of a prying, bug-eyed old social worker (Montserrat Carulla), and spooky goings-on—including suspicious "imaginary friends" for Simón—suggesting that long-gone orphans won't stay dead.
When Simón disappears, Laura must figure out how to communicate with the ghosts. Her best bet is a psychic (Geraldine Chaplin) who, in a well-executed sequence reminiscent of The Grudge franchise, communicates with the beyond while others watch on video monitors. The results prove to be the last straw for Carlos, the ostensible voice of reason as Laura begins to crack under the strain. The husband is an otherwise negligible presence, for The Orphanage, like The Others, is about the inextricable, fateful bond of mother and child.
But since this isn't a serious drama, The Orphanage waltzes around this theme while serving its true master: suspense. Hence, we get a series of serviceable creep-outs and jolts, enough to keep the film humming along but not enough to distinguish it. Thus, as in an M. Night Shyamalan film, the onus rests on the ending. But by the time we get there, Sergio G. Sánchez's screenplay has yanked us around so much that the pretzel-shaped resolution feels like too little too late. In the wake of Pan's Labyrinth and given Bayona's stylish direction, The Orphanage remains a safe choice as Spain's bid for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
New Line's home-video package for The Orphanage comes in DVD and Blu-Ray editions. As it should for a brand-new film, The Orphanage looks and sounds great (with both DTS and Dolby Digital surround tracks), and it comes with a few nice extras. "When Laura Grew Up: Constructing The Orphanage" (17:23) is a behind-the-scenes doc including interviews with all the principal cast and crew members, including director Bayona and producer Guillermo del Toro; the piece dutifully covers the film from pre-production to post-production. "Tomás' Secret Room" (10:00) does the same task in brisker (brusquer?) fashion, in five, two-minute clips on Bayona, the score, the art direction, the visual effects and the opening credit sequence.
"Horror In The Unknown: Makeup Effects" (9:22) shines the spotlight on the work of makeup designers David Martí and Montse Ribé (Oscar winners for Pan's Labyrinth), and "Rehearsal Studio: Cast Auditions and Table Read" (3:43), though all too short, is for us "process" junkies, giving a glimpse of Bayona working with the actors, including young Príncep. The disc also includes theatrical trailers and TV spots, as well as a "Still Gallery" and "Marketing Campaign" sections that include over 200 photographs and conceptual poster art.
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