Friday, January 11, 2008

Quiet horror at the "Orphanage"

Summary: In "The Orphanage, " director Antonio Bayona avoids the shock and shlock of contemporary horror, but he hasn't quite made the scary movie some have hailed. Working with producer Guillermo del Torro -- whose "Pan's Labyrinth" was a far more original mixture of psychology, fantasy and horror -- Bayona whips up a well-made but slightly predictable addition to the quiet-horror genre.

"The Orphanage" centers on Laura (Belen Rueda), a woman who has moved into the orphanage where she spent her first seven years. Not surprisingly, the orphanage is a dark and rambling old mansion in a secluded part of the Spanish countryside. In what amounts to a return trip to her past, Laura's accompanied by her spouse (Fernando Cayo) and her son Simon (Roger Princep). Laura and her physician husband plan to renovate the now-abandoned manse and turn it into a home for children with disabilities.

Things begin to get creepy when a severe-looking social worker (Montserrat Carulla) shows up offering assistance. At that point, we learn that Simon has been adopted and also is HIV positive. But that’s not the creepy part. The creepy meter begins to run in earnest when Simon -- a child with imaginary friends -- disappears.

At that point, "The Orphanage" turns into a mystery fueled by Larua's guilt and anxiety and by the bond she has established with her son. Such emotional underpinnings allow Bayona to toy with our perceptions, raising doubts about whether Laura is losing her grip.

Too well-crafted to ignore, "The Orphanage" marks a promising debut for Bayona, and one presumes that the gifted del Torro wouldn't have served as the film's producer had he not believed in Bayona's talent. But the "Orphanage" doesn't quite match the strangeness of the better Japanese and Korean horror, and it lacks the dynamism that marks del Torro's best work. There are some shocks, of course, but mostly "The Orphanage" is a horror movie for those who prefer a soft-sell approach and don't mind vague, movie-inspired feelings of familiarity about what transpires.

No comments: