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Horror in Cinema and Literature
(El Horror En El Cine Y En La Literatura)
by Norma Lazo
(In Paperback from Amazon)
(aka, "El Orfanato")
With Guillermo Del Toro in the credits you might expect a bit of magical realism here ala his "Pan's Labyrinth." But, as the credit was for neither writing nor directing, this is a whole other kettle of imaginary critters. Pure and simple, this is a horror movie trying to be this year's "The Sixth Sense." But, only trying, mainly because M. Night Shyamalan got there first, with more ghoul-inducing originality.
In other words, these grounds have been staked out so often (Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others" with Nicole Kidman as the desperate mom also comes to mind), only a new piece of the plot is likely to unearth the intended depth of U.S. and international horrorification. For all its angst and tasteful avoidance of shock effects every ten minutes, this horror pic is unique only by way of its setting and cast. Otherwise (no pun intended), we've seen it all before. This Spanish variation, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sanchez, is strictly a derivative.
The ghost-fostering gimmick here is that Laura, at age seven, was raised in a gothic seacoast orphanage and returns to its long-locked doors as a mature woman (Belen Rueda, "The Sea Inside") with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted young son Simon (Roger Princep) thinking of turning it into a home for kids with special needs. But, of course, the halls and walls are already occupied -- with the orphan friend-spirits she left behind. When Simon starts talking to them, however, things take on an other-worldly inhospitality.
At first, the little friend that only he can see and converse with is Tomas, but Tomas begets a horde of nasty compadres who have a wretchedly sour way about them, apparently out to get even for the wrongs they suffered 40 years ago. You'd think that mama would be alarmed, but she's passing it off as a healthy thing for Simon to break out of lonliness by engaging in imaginary games with imaginary people. Her method of motherhood goes out of its mortal way to be understanding and enabling.
But when Simon tells her things he shouldn't know, like historical details and threatening demands, and when physical phenomena start occuring, she starts communicating with them, too -- the disturbed inhabitants who aren't paying rent. Hard to tell from there what's real but the movie wants you to think it all is. When Simon discovers that he's an adopted child, he disappears into a cave with one of his friends and eludes all pleas to return. Laura goes ballistic and frantically tries to lure him back. Taking the more pragmatic approach, Carlos calls the police to scour the rooms, the isolated grounds and the cove formed from rugged rocks. (Film was shot in the rugged coastal landscape of Asturias).
Injecting another note of horror is an elderly woman who comes knocking on the door claiming falsely to be social worker Benigna Escobeda (Montserrat Carulla) who has the creds to punish Laura. But mom has the good sense to kick her the hell out of the house as a charlatan, only to see her hanging loose in the nearby town during a shopping trip.
Marital differences are tested between Laura and Carlos, giving them a compromise decision to bring in the psychics. Geraldine Chaplin gives it all she's got as medium Aurora, heading up her team of spiritualist charlatans.
Rueda runs through all the desperate-mother notes with the fine tuning of a pro despite a script that's a little less than virtuosic. It is, however, gifted with a boy actor in Princep who is everything that the script calls for: charm, intelligence and good looks. It's just that there are so many loose ends and actual holes -- elements that the Spanish have been more than willing to ignore in making it their top boxoffice hit.
~~ Jules Brenner