Film Threat archive logo


By Pete Vonder Haar | December 30, 2007

Ghosts are a lot more popular horror subject in other parts of the world than they are in the U.S. of A. There’s probably some thesis-level work that could be done on the popularity of the unquiet spirits of the dead in Europe and Asia (or at least a really lengthy Film Comment article), but I’ll sum it up by paraphrasing Homer Simpson: Americans like our beer cold, our TV loud, and our monsters violently carnivorous (and – usually – undead).

You won’t find ghoulies of that ilk in “El Orfanato,” Spain’s latest entry in the global horror canon. Directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the action starts up in a Spanish orphanage, surprisingly enough, where young Laura indulges in carefree play with her fellow neglecterinos in these surprisingly spacious digs before she ends up getting adopted. 30 years pass, and the adult Laura (Belén Rueda) is returning to her old stomping grounds with doctor husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simón (Roger Príncep). She and Carlos have bought the abandoned property to start a home for disabled kids, because nothing says “safe environment for the mentally challenged” like “rambling overgrown estate on the Spanish coast.”

Things starts going downhill when Simón begins making new imaginary friends and drawing pictures of a creepy hood-wearing kid from Laura’s youth. The appearance of an unsociable social worker (Montserrat Carulla) leads to the youngster discovering that he’s been adopted as well, and is also very sick (HIV+). Laura and Carlos sit down to explain things to the boy, but he’s obviously unhappy, which makes Laura and Carlos feel even worse when he suddenly disappears during the home’s grand opening party.

Six months go by, with Laura convinced that Simón is still alive, and after a visit from a psychic it becomes apparent his disappearance has something to do with the fate that befell Laura’s friends some 30 years ago.

First, the good: Rueda (“The Sea Inside”) is fantastic. She has the film almost to herself in the second half, and a lesser talent would’ve been disastrous. Cinematographer Óscar Faura lends everything a suitable lush and torporous feel, but to his (and Bayona’s) credit, they never make the mistake of aping Del Toro cinematographer Guillermo Navarro’s signature style (the ending, on the other hand). The theme of family is also played upon without becoming overbearing.

No, the problem is in the story’s resolution. A good horror/ghost story should offer surprises apart from the “Boo!” variety, and unfortunately for Bayona, pretty much everyone will be able to figure out how events are going to play out after the first 20 minutes. There are also a few head-scratchers which I won’t go into here for spoiler reasons, but let’s just say if Simón behaved more like every other 7-year old I’ve known in some spots, things would have been drastically different.

“El Orfanato” is still a better-than-average first effort, elevated by Rueda’s performance and the film’s evocative look and brought back down to earth by an excessively predictable outcome. Still, it’s worth a look, even taking into consideration the lack of zombies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon