Film | Sunday, 02 May 2010

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Genuine scares are hard to find, but look no further

That ‘foreign films’ are automatically better than their Tinseltown counterparts is, of course, not necessarily true… no matter how many pseudo-intellectual hipsters would like you to think so. It just so happens that Hollywood has more money with which to produce garbage, and that we don’t always get to see the even lower budget, idiosyncratic garbage that individual countries unleash upon their populace regularly. Still, there’s an upside to the tyranny of Hollywood: it means that the most visible non-American (and British, to some extent) productions are the ones that have really fought their way to the top.
Juxtaposed against the churn of Hollywood horror, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (first released as ‘El Orfanato’ in 2007) exists as testament to this predicament. What is most striking about it is the fact that it does so much with so little. This is not an allusion to its budget, which was given a significantly ample leg up by Bayona’s friend and producer Guillermo del Toro, director of the Hellboy films and that other continental masterpiece of chiaroscuro horror, Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed, the Spanish production looks polished enough to stand alongside any Hollywood blockbuster. Visually, it beats them through sheer discipline – its simple, restrained cinematography belies a merciless sense of how to pace terror.
And this is precisely it – Bayona strategically chooses a classic setup – a sprawling house with a past, in this case an orphanage – and weaves a simple tale in perfect little steps, the horror all the more horrific for its lack of gimmicks, movie stars and extravagant CGI.
As a child, young orphan Laura (Belén Rueda) spent her formative years being cared for by the staff of a large orphanage located by the Spanish seaside. Those were some of the happiest years of Laura’s life, and now, 30 years later, the former charge returns to the dilapidated institution with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their seven-year-old adopted son, Simon (Roger Príncep), to reopen the orphanage as a facility for disabled children. However, something ominous haunts the darkened hallways of this silent, stately manor. When Simon’s behaviour begins to grow increasingly bizarre and malicious, Laura and Carlos start to suspect that the mysterious surroundings have awoken something ominous in the young boy’s imagination.
While it is structurally different from Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage still feels as if it was mentored into shape under del Toro’s direction, which would not be too unreasonable an assumption, given that not only does Bayona’s film indirectly benefit from del Toro’s efforts (his forays into the fantastic both in Spanish cinema and Hollywood place him in a privileged position), it also moves with a similar knowledge of generic tropes and confidence in execution. However whereas Pan’s Labyrinth updated Alice in Wonderland into a Fascist-era Spain allegory, The Orphanage is a far more straightforward Gothic mystery. And while another of its similarities to del Toro’s oeuvre can be located in its ambiguous treatment of the supernatural (the children are ghosts… or are they? It’s all in Laura/Simon’s head… or is it?) Bayona proceeds on his own steam, generating scares slowly but surely.

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