Phantom Playmates

The Spanish film poster for THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

After opening in Spain in the Fall of 2007, Juan Antonio Bayona’s elegant ghost story El Orfanato (English title: The Orphanage) went on to generate enthusiastic word of mouth responses from its many festival showings at Cannes, Toronto, Sitges, Austin and New York while picking up various honors such as Best New Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards) and a nominee for the Golden Camera award at Cannes. I was lucky enough to see the movie during a visit to Girona, Spain where it was playing at a multiplex just a few blocks away from the wonderful Museu del Cinema which houses the Tomas Mallol collection (an amazing repository devoted to the beginnings and earlier origins of the medium known as the cinema). 

Produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), The Orphanage definitely shares similarities with some of Del Toro’s work, especially The Devil’s Backbone (2001), in its depiction of children robbed of their innocence and subjected to soul crushing inhumanities. There are also homages and references to other great supernatural thrillers from the films of Val Lewton to The Innocents (1961) to the more recent The Others (2001) and even the short stories of M.R. James (“Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “Casting the Runes”).

Laura (Belen Rueda) talks to her son Simon (Roger Princep) about his imaginary playmates in the Spanish ghost story THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

The Orphanage, however, has a distinct personality of its own, despite some criticisms of it being too derivative and sedate to work as an effective chiller. I see the film more as a tragedy with elements of the supernatural but there are still some spine-tingling moments amid the immense sadness of the story. It all takes place in a beautiful old mansion on a sprawling estate near the ocean which has just been purchased by a couple, Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cavo) with an adopted child Simon (Roger Princep). Their plan is to turn it into a home for handicapped children and for Laura, who was also adopted, the place has a sentimental attachment – it was the orphanage where she spent some of the happiest days of her childhood. Their new situation also puts an enormous strain on their marriage which suffers as a result.

Laura (Belen Rueda) realizes there is something strange and mysterious about their new living situation in THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

Sergio G. Sanchez’s screenplay takes a dark turn almost as soon as Laura and her family move in starting with the unexpected arrival of Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), a suspicious-looking character with coke-bottle glasses who delivers a dossier with some disturbing information on their son. Meanwhile, Simon retreats into a fantasy life with his imaginary playmates Watson and Pepe which causes some concern for Laura. Her anxiety increases when he meets a new “playmate” named Tomas in a cave on the beach and leaves a trail of seashells so Tomas can follow him home. It gets creepier from here on and I won’t reveal any more except to say that the chain of events which occur compels Laura to uncover the terrible secret of the house and to try to exorcise the evil that has taken hold of the place. The film ends on a note of redemption and salvation but is far from a happy one and, in its own way, is just as dark and despairing as that of the 2005 cult chiller The Descent.

A masked child that no one knows appears at Simon’s birthday party in THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

On a visual level, The Orphanage is stunning and much of the film’s mood and atmosphere is due to Oscar Faura’s cinematography, which was also the highlight of several similar genre exercises: Los Sin Nombre (1999) aka The Nameless, Intacto (2001), The Abandoned (2006). But the burden of the film falls on Belen Rueda (The Sea Inside, Savage Grace), who is really the central focus and not Simon. Her gradual transition from apprehension to terror to a final death-defying course of action is beautifully sustained and absorbing.

Laura (Belen Rueda) collapses in the surf while her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) races to help her during their search for their missing child in THE OPHANAGE (2007).

Juan Antonio Bayona had previously made a few film shorts and dabbled in music videos but The Orphanage was his feature film debut and attracted the attention of Hollywood. Bayona was eventually recruited to direct The Impossible (2012), an Indian Ocean tsunami drama starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. He went on to direct the children fantasy drama A Monster Calls (2016) with Lewis MacDougall and Sigourney Weaver, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) and TV episodes of Penny Dreadful (2014) and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022).

Geraldine Chaplin makes a cameo appearance as Aurora, a medium who conducts seances in supposedly haunted places in THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

Still, I would prefer to see Bayona return to something more intimate and small scale like The Orphanage than taking on more big budget commercial projects. For one thing, it is refreshing to see restraint and subtlety in a contemporary ghost story like this one when CGI overkill, excessive gore, and MTV-style editing seems the norm. Some of the most chilling moments in The Orphanage employ no special effects at all. There’s a sequence with a medium (Geraldine Chaplin in a cameo appearance) and a team of poltergeist experts that is truly unsettling but we never really see anything. Even a kids’ game of “knock on wood” takes on a more ominous tone here.

Laura (Belen Rueda) notices something disturbing she missed before while viewing a home movie in THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

There is also a children’s party sequence that seems inspired by Diane Arbus’s final photographs of Down Syndrome children in Halloween masks. The scene that raised the hair on my neck though was the scene where Laura is in bed and is awakened by her husband getting under the covers with her and snuggling….except that it isn’t her husband.

A publicity still from the 2007 Spanish film THE ORPHANAGE.

In an interview about the film on the website, Bayona stated “Horror movies are all about transgression. The horror movie must take us to places we’re afraid to go, must show us things about ourselves that we find disturbing. Deformity, handicap and illness threaten our stability. You have to rupture that stability, to reverse it. That’s real terror. Which world is worse, the real one or the one imagined by Laura ? On the other hand, illness provokes thoughts of mortality, of death. This is something Laura must learn to cope with.”

The director also revealed that The Orphanage was filmed in Llanes, Asturias on the coast of Northern Spain and that the Partarriu Mansion on an abandoned estate served as the main setting. “”I wasn’t looking for a huge mansion, filled with interminable hallways, like in The Shining,” Bayona states. “I wanted something smaller and more minimal, but at the same time large enough to make the story credible. Partarríu Mansion had all these elements. It was a large colonial house dating back to the end of the 19th century, with a truly mysterious feel to it. Its dimensions are deceptive at first sight: the fact that each of its facades is different gives the impression that the house is constantly changing.”

The abandoned Partarriu Mansion and estate in Llanes, Spain was used for the main location in THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

In the U.S. The Orphanage was well received by numerous high profile critics. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times stated that it “ a superior ghost story” and added that it “is deliberately aimed at viewers with developed attention spans. It lingers to create atmosphere, a sense of place, a sympathy with the characters, instead of rushing into cheap thrills.” Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle called it “Beautifully conceived and composed, it’s eerie, sometimes frightening and surprisingly moving.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone proclaimed it “A frightening movie that earns its scares the hard way, generating unbearable tension through artful technique instead of computer.” And Desson Thomson of The Washington Post said it ”lures us in with extraordinary subtlety. Keeping sound effects and incidental music to a relative minimum, it builds its suspense almost subliminally. So when something scary or shocking does occur — deprived of those Hollywood-style cues — we are truly startled.”

Fans of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) and Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001) should definitely check out this atmospheric Spanish chiller. Warner Bros. released The Orphanage in a dual format Blu-ray/DVD in April 2008 and the film is streaming on various platforms in Spanish with English subtitles.

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