Guillermo Del Toro is a busy man these days. When he isn't directing his own visionary horror-fantasies like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone, or taking on the thankless task of following up Peter Jackson's triumph with the Lord of the Rings trilogy by agreeing to direct The Hobbit, he is throwing his weight and substantial creative energy behind younger proteges.
One recent beneficiary of Del Toro's influence is Juan Antonio Bayona, a baby-faced Barcelona native who first met and impressed his Mexican mentor as a teenage journalist. Bayona's debut film, El Orfanato (The Orphanage), is a rare blend of horror and drama that succeeds magnificently on both levels. Apparently, it was exactly this crossbred quality that kept the script by Sergio G. Sanchez languishing for several years, unable to secure financing from genre-fixated studios until Bayona read it and Del Toro stepped in to produce.
El Orfanato was Spain's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2008 Oscars, to give some sense of its pedigree and extraordinary production values. It tells the story of a woman who returns with her husband and young son to renovate and re-open the very orphanage in which she was raised. Needless to say, everything does not go according to plan. More than that, I don't care to reveal.
Most, if not all, of my previous selections would hold little appeal for those who are not fans of being frightened (or disturbed). Though El Orfanato has several sudden scares and a fair share of spinetingling suspense, I think it is mild enough for general consumption. Anyone who saw and enjoyed Alejandro Amenabar's The Others will not only find El Orfanato equally palatable, they might also recognize a common influence in Henry James's classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. Yet while Amenabar was content to mine atmosphere and a few scares from such a celebrated source, en route to a Shyamalan-style trick-door escape, Bayona and Sanchez--like James--ultimately lock viewers deep within the heart of their haunted mansion and force them to find their own way out. That's not to say El Orfanato does not hide a surprise or two, just that its power to haunt and entertain is based on more than sleight of hand. A common refrain in this blog has been, does this movie reward multiple viewings? El Orfanato not only rewards. It actually demands.
Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
My psychological status: