Scary Movie

11 Nov 2014 | 01:52

    The Orphanage Directed by Juan Antonia Bayona

    Anticipation has always been the chief contrivance of horror cinema. Ominous landscapes hinted at depraved realms of human suffering in German Expressionism of the 1920s; the transcendent B-movies tactfully produced by Val Lewton for RCA in the 1930s used the impact of inaction to heighten the possibility that something lurked just outside the frame; later works by Polanski and Hitchcock used rapid successions of shots and cuts to push viewers’ uneasiness to its breaking point.

    The explicit gruesomeness of visceral horror—where blood and guts replaced psychological terror—came later, after the widely circulated Zapriski film and images of Vietnam battlefields became prominent contributors to the American imagination. It’s probably no coincidence that another grisly war raged overseas when Hostel hit the jackpot in 2006. (The argument is there, anyway.)

    The latest gore trend makes it refreshing to discover that The Orphanage, a tense Spanish drama (and Spain’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards) produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by neophyte Juan Antonio Bayona from Sergio Sánchez’s screenplay, signals a return to the genre’s roots of unsettlement. The set-up feels like a gothic Never-Neverland, following the attempts of a kindly woman (Belén Rueda) to raise a terminally ill young boy (Roger Príncep) without acknowledging his numbered days.

    The eventual disappearance of the boy, and the woman’s mounting suspicions that the specters of deceased children have taken him captive, lead to the kind of suspenseful aura that no special effects or frightening images retain. The incremental pace creates an old-fashioned ghost movie situated in tone somewhere between Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People and a steadier version of The Sixth Sense. Bayona hardly ever indulges in the mechanics of calculated surprises that have become the industry standard. The audio-visual exclamation points only arrive after an inordinately thrilling succession of question marks.

    The story has enough exposition to fill an entire droll melodrama, but when its agitation takes root, Bayona unleashes a series of gripping maneuvers. A late scene when the surrogate mother confronts a pack of dead children in a climactic game of hide and seek forms one of the scariest sequences of the decade. To the detriment of the narrative, such valuable incidents illuminate a fractured canvas with several muddled intentions. It lags in the second act, when the woman and her husband (Fernando Cayo) grow estranged in the wake of the child’s disappearance. Similarly, an obvious homage to Poltergeist is boring and inconclusive. The rough patches protrude like aesthetic tumors on a near-perfect configuration.

    If The Orphanage were boiled down to a few isolated moments of skillfully executed terror, Bayona would surely have crafted a masterpiece. Because its pace-heavy plot goes too many directions and fails to pick up all the pieces, the result is something less than that—but admirable nonetheless. Let the anticipation of Bayona’s next move begin.