Toronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- "What is a ghost?"
That question animated Guillermo Del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone," and it reappears -- again, with hauntingly poetic answers -- in Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage." Exec produced by Del Toro, it's a present-day cousin to the earlier film, more solidly tethered to its genre and very satisfying on those terms. The Del Toro imprimatur will help draw an arthouse/fantasy crowd, which won't be disappointed.
The picture comes equipped with a trunk full of storybook archetypes -- mysterious caves, extinguished lighthouses, secrets held under lock and key -- in addition to the eponymous shuttered orphanage, which Laura and her husband Carlos have bought in hopes of starting a home for disabled children. Laura lived here as a child before her adoption, and has happy but incomplete memories of the friends she left behind.
Laura's own adopted son Simon shares her affinity for abandoned souls, and early on -- particularly after they tell him things he shouldn't know -- we suspect that some of the imaginary friends he's making at this isolated seaside estate aren't so imaginary.
Simon vanishes without explanation one day, and the ghost story proper begins. While Carlos treats the disappearance as a police investigation, Laura is convinced the spirit world is trying to lead her to the boy. She begins to hear bumps in the night, see kids who aren't there, and uncover bits of history suggesting that her childhood home wasn't as idyllic as she believed it to be.
Director Bayona employs the visual language of horror films (the merry-go-round creaking slowly in the breeze, the camera pulling away into shadows) with restraint and good taste, preferring to let chills build slowly until, in a great one-two punch halfway through (also the only memorably gory scene in the film) he delivers an adrenaline jolt that colors the remainder of the tale.
From there, Sergio G. Sanchez's script delivers one solid sequence after another, each integrated smartly enough with Laura's backstory to feel richer than standard genre beats. The scares aren't as extreme as in a teen-aimed horror flick, but they satisfy. They also reflect a creative team whose personal investment in the world of bedtime stories ("Peter Pan" provides a resonant theme here) and ghost lore runs deep -- extending beyond the campfire impulse to scare each other and to a concern with the supernatural that's more spiritual or philosophical. What is a ghost? One character here wonders if it might be an echo, of pain and loss, determined to keep repeating until it is heard. "The Orphanage" listens attentively.
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sanchez
Producer: NO RESPONSE
Executive producers: Alvaro Augustin, Joaquin Padro, Mar Targarona, Guillermo Del Toro
Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Production designer: (credited as Art Director) Josep Rosell
Music: Fernando Velazquez
Costume designer: Maria Reyes
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Laura: Belen Rueda
Carlos: Fernando Cayo
Simon: Roger Princep
Pilar: Mabel Ribera
Benigna: Montserrat Carulla
Enrique: Andres Gertrudix
Balaban: Edgar Vivar
Aurora: Geraldine Chaplin
Running time -- 106 minutes
MPAA rating: R