EmptyNEW YORK -- This Spanish supernatural thriller begins interestingly and finishes intriguingly. But what lies between drags because the film lacks a driving story line.
The muddy middle means that "The Orphanage" doesn't live up to the eerie promise of its early scenes -- even though a sustained performance by Belen Rueda as a distressed mother goes a long way to paper over the cracks.
"Orphanage," directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, is Spain's entry for the foreign-language film Oscar. Del Toro, still riding high after "Pan's Labyrinth," has put his name behind the film, which could prove an initial boon at the boxoffice. But the Picturehouse release isn't scary enough to do much business in theaters.
Bayona mixes two styles of supernatural thriller as the moody atmosphere of 1970s films like "The Omen" blends with the grim bitterness of contemporary J-horror.
The story takes place in, yes, a secluded mansion. Laura (Rueda) and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), are a pleasant middle-class couple who move into a seaside manor with their adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep). The twist is that Laura grew up in the place back when it was an orphanage. When young Simon disappears, Laura claims that he has been taken prisoner by the ghosts of the orphans. No one believes her, so she starts to investigate on her own.
Like many genre films, this one borrows at will. A plot about a child who can see dead people is obviously similar to "The Sixth Sense," and the idea of everyday people coming face-to-face with evil forces reminds of "Rosemary's Baby." Some contemporary touches arise from the director's attempts to replicate the cruel frights of J-horror. But these demand a nastiness that's out of sorts with the film, thus the shocks often fail to hit home.
Rueda is the glue that holds everything together. It's a dramatic performance that rises above the constraints of genre work and gives the film an incredible lift. Production values are high, with Oscar Faura's probing cinematography a standout.
Rodar y Rodar Cine y Television and Telecini Cinema
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sanchez
Producers: Mar Targarona, Joaquin Padro, Alvaro Augustin
Executive producer: Guillermo del Toro
Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Art director: Josep Rosell
Music: Fernando Velasquez
Costume designer: Maria Reyes
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Laura: Belen Rueda
Carlos: Fernando Cayo
Simon: Roger Princep
Pilar: Mabel Rivera
Running time -- 100 minutes
MPAA rating: R