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2 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

The Orphanage

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Written by Sergio G. Sanchez

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Starring Belen Rueda

**

Produced by Guillermo del Toro and introduced at Cannes to some acclaim last May, The Orphanage is a debut film from first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona. This year's Spanish Oscar nominee, and a box office smash in its native country, is a ghost story - but that prickling you feel at the back of your scalp may be less fear than déjà vu.

Contrary to its title, The Orphanage is a movie with many forebears, starting with Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents, The Others and the whole cycle of possessed child movies from the seventies and eighties, including from The Exorcist, The Omen and Poltergeist. Producer Guillermo Del Toro's own ghost movies ( The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth) similarly blend a fluid mix of hallucinatory imagery and sombre realism. Unlike Del Toro's other films, though, The Orphanage has no real political or historic context. It's just a scary movie.

The strongest appeal of the film is the brooding, intense performance by Spanish actress, Belen Rueda ( The Sea Inside), as a 37-year-old woman, Laura, who returns to Spain's seaside to buy the orphanage where she spent her childhood. Her aim is to turn it into a home for a half-dozen ill or disabled children, with her and her doctor husband (Fernando Cayo) serving as caregivers. They already have an adopted son, the HIV-positive seven-year-old, Simon (Roger Príncep).

Shortly after they settle in the rambling old building, Simon begins to behave oddly, talking about a group of imaginary friends and drawing strange pictures. He is also privy to information that his parents have never told him. Then an old woman (Montserrat Carulla) knocks on the door, claiming to be a social worker. Later, she is seen hiding on the property.

At a party to inaugurate the new home for disabled children, the evil spirits make their presence felt. Almost everyone at the party, including kids with Down syndrome wears a spooky mask (with the reprehensible suggestion of equating children with disabilities to monsters). Laura is terrified in an upstairs room by a strange child with a sack over his face. She rushes down to the party to discover, to her horror, that the evil child has abducted Simon.

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The second half of the film follows Laura's attempts to cope with her child's disappearance. Her rational husband goes to the police psychologist (Mabel Rivera) for help without success. Laura is convinced there's a supernatural dimension to the disappearance, and is certain her son is alive and nearby. Eventually, she persuades her husband to bring in a spiritualist (Geraldine Chaplin) who goes into a trance while her crew of videographers and ghost detector follow her about the house. On the spiritualist's advice, Laura determines to learn more about the abuses of the past by digging up old films from the orphanage's archives, to find the connection to the spirits haunting her home.

Unfolding as both a supernatural tale and a psychological story, The Orphanage is cluttered with complications - children's games, allusions to Peter Pan, an ocean cave, a hidden room under the stairs, and an abandoned lighthouse. At its core, it seems intended as a sympathetic drama of a bereaved mother, who may have slipped into madness. What's even more disquieting is the persistent undercurrent of exploitation - the mixture of grief and jarring shock effects and the pitiless use of a disfigured child as a source of horror.

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