Word on the street for directors who build their careers in music videos before moving on to feature films is that they're all style and no substance, favoring the former medium's trademark flashy visuals and desultory quick-cuts over deliberate, coherent storytelling. If the word is generally true, then first-time feature director Juan Bayona—who made his name producing commercials and music vids for pop singers in his native Spain—is a most notable exception. The first hour of his 2007 art-house horror flick The Orphanage is almost meditative in its pacing, and the film as a whole is especially well-considered for a so-called genre flick, imbued with an unexpected warmth as well as jarringly effective, yet judiciously employed scares.
Maybe Bayona received some exceptional mentoring from co-producer Guillermo del Toro, the director of the critically acclaimed Spanish horror/fantasy hit Pan's Labyrinth (2006), as well as the creepy cult frightener The Devil's Backbone (2001), a wartime ghost story set in a school for boys. The Orphanage has much in common with the latter film, and not just because of its phantasmagoric dead-kid scares; like del Toro, Bayona understands that it's best to build our dread through the masks of nuance and mounting insinuation before revealing in full the terrible face of his horrors.
But Bayona is his own man, to be sure. His film is warmer and sweeter than most of del Toro's fare. After a brief flashback sequence, Orphanage begins with the introduction of Carlos and Laura (Fernando Cayo and Belen Rueda), a likable couple, still on the sunny side of middle age, who are the adoptive parents of a saucer-eyed, curly-topped little boy named Simon (Roger Princep). The family lives in a huge house that was once an orphanage; hinted at is the fact is that Simon has a serious illness, though the couple have tried to keep him blissfully unaware of either his condition or the fact of his adoption.
But Simon seems to have other issues, too. He has an inordinate number of imaginary playmates, for one thing, as well as a tendency to attribute his own apparent mischief to his invisible friends. At an outdoor party Carlos and Laura throw at the stately old seaside manse, Simon's vivid imaginings and his parents' inevitable frustrations at last come to a weird, explosive head.
I say "at last" because the first half of Orphanage is almost too deliberate, as if Bayona were overcompensating for his video-director reputation. Even after the party scene sets the story's central mystery in motion, there's still a feeling of lingering stasis that lasts until, minutes later, Bayona kicks off the film's faster-paced final hour with—quite literally—a bang. Perhaps a holdover from his video days, the director knows the value of a well-placed jolt. It's to his credit that his jolts are deployed both thoughtfully and sparingly, serving to complement, rather than detract from, the movie's well-earned moments of fright; Bayona's jump-out-of-your-skin moments never seem easy or cheap.
The performances in Orphanage are strong, but the standouts are necessarily Rueda and Princep. Rueda's is a familiar role—that of a devoted, driven mother trying to preserve the welfare of her little son, regardless of cost—and she serves it admirably, her eyes perpetually weary with the aggregate stresses of unending fret and determination. And Princep is a find. Precocious and enigmatic, yet still bursting with contagious seven-year-old effervescence, his fetching performance flouts horror-movie convention, which usually posits children as either sad, knowing little introverts (a la The Sixth Sense) or dead-eyed demon-spawn (see The Omen).
But it's Bayona who shines brightest, even through the pervading darkness of this creepy Spanish ghost story. It seems he took away only the best lessons from his previous directorial endeavors, and none of the expected bad habits.
Though only released as a single disc, The Orphanage contains a respectable apportionment of extras, including three featurettes (makeup/effects; setting; and filmmakers) and footage taken from rehearsals.