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Passport To the Other World

October 22nd, 2010 · 2 Comments

As days get shorter, nights get longer and All Hallow’s Eve beckons, I can say that I won’t be wandering the streets dressed as Chewbacca begging for candy. What I can’t say is whether or not at my age, horror movies still have any surprises left in them. In the search for originality, it’d be a good idea to start anywhere but Hollywood. For the month of October, I take a trip around the globe to see what’s scaring some of my favorite countries these days.

The Orphanage (2007)
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Written by Sergio G. Sánchez
Produced by Joaquín Padró, Mar Targarona, Álvaro Augustín, Guillermo del Toro
105 minutes

To call The Orphanage a Steven Spielberg ghost story is actually more of a compliment to Mr. Spielberg than to the Spaniards who crafted one of the most thrilling explorations of the afterlife in many years. Sergio G. Sánchez had Peter Pan and The Turn of the Screw in mind when he finished a draft of The Orphanage in 1998. Hoping he might direct it, Sánchez set out to prove himself behind the camera with a 17-minute short, which caught the eye of director J.A. Bayona at a film festival. Asking Sánchez if he had written anything else, the director took The Orphanage to Barcelona based producers Joaquín Padró & Mar Targarona, whose company Rodar y Rodar had employed Bayona in his commercial career. Another call was put in to Guillermo del Toro, who Bayona had met at the 1992 Sitges Fantastic Cinema Festival when del Toro was screening his debut feature Cronos.

With the name “Guillermo del Toro” above the title, Rodar y Rodar was able to raise $4 million in financing, partnering with commercial network Telecinco for Bayona to make his feature film debut. The result became the highest grossing Spanish language film in Spain’s history and was named their entry in the 2008 Academy Awards.  The Orphanage is a jewel among junk in the fantasy and horror genres. Instead of showcasing special effects, the sophistication of old-fashioned storytelling is what shines through here. Sánchez’s intricate puzzle box of a script taps into our mutual fear and our fascination of the unknown, grounded by Belén Rueda playing a modern day Mrs. Darling haunted by the disappearance of children who’ve been taken away to Neverland. In his first feature outing, Bayona juggles magic, fright and melodrama to beautiful and remarkable effect.

7-year-old Simón (Roger Príncep) wakes in the night crying for his mother Laura (Belén Rueda). An only child, Simón both entertains and scares himself with a rich fantasy life that includes a couple of invisible friends. Newly arrived in the 19th century mansion where she was raised when the house was an orphanage, Laura takes a break preparing an open house for her own orphanage with husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) to accompany her son to the seashore. After exploring a cave, Simón asks permission to invite home a boy he claims he met in there. Laura receives a visit from an old social worker (Montserrat Carulla) inquiring about Simón, who has not yet been told he is adopted and is receiving treatment for HIV. Waken in the night by strange noises in the garage, Laura finds the social worker snooping around and chases her away.

Simón introduces his mother to a game his invisible friends have invented: hiding something of value and replacing it with clues that lead back to the missing object. Pressed by Laura to stop lying, Simón reveals that it’s his parents who have been lying to him; his new friend Tomás told him so. During the open house, a strange child wearing a sack over his head and the name “Tomás” sewn on his shirt locks Laura in a bathroom. By the time she’s rescued, Simón has vanished. The state has no record of the social worker Laura reported in her home and the police have no clues in the disappearance of her son. Convinced Simón still in the house and that his “friends” know where, Laura invites a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) and a team of parapsychologists to help, fracturing her marriage, but revealing a secret about the Good Shepherd Orphanage and the fate of her son.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 38,413 users: 85% for The Orphanage

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 74 for The Orphanage

What do you say?

Tags: Dreams and visions · Interrogation · Mother/son relationship · Murder mystery · Psychoanalysis · Supernatural · Woman in jeopardy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rebecca // Oct 22, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I almost think that it was all the more disturbing for being so beautifully shot -but I did find the hooded child immensely unsettling.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Rebecca: It seems like kids and scary movies mesh very well together. Maybe as adults we have an innate fear of being killed off by the next generation. What was so novel about The Orphanage is how much emphasis is placed on magic and grandeur as opposed to blood and guts. It has panache and is still scarier than most American movies. Thanks for commenting!

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