Juan Antonio Bayona makes his feature film debut in this great little ghost story. Guillermo del Toro produces and throws his name on the film to try and get it some viewers based solely on his credentials but the reviews and word of mouth should be enough to sell this excellent suspense thriller.
The film opens with a brief intro to The Orphanage in question as we see some children playing in the yard. We quickly learn that one of them has been adopted, Laura, only to find her grown up and back at the orphanage after purchasing it some years later. Laura plans on reopening the orphanage for a few select special children to join her son and husband as a new family.
Her son Simón quickly meets some new invisible friends and they play a game with him and Laura leading them on a scavenger hunt around the house. The hunt leads them to an angry confrontation between Simón and Laura and a series of bad events begin to unfold. The film is as much mystery as it is a creepy thriller and to say more would be a disservice to the viewer.
The leads Belén Rueda (Laura) and Roger Príncep (Simón) are great and carry the film easily. Simón is a sweet and lovable boy that we really care for and isn’t the usually creepy little boy you find as a staple in most horror films nowadays. Rueda is also great as the lead Laura and is very good as the estranged mother trying to solve a mystery to save her family.
What the film does exceptionally well is to walk the fine line of blending reality and paranormal and keeping the viewer on their toes as to what is real and not of this world. Most of the action takes place in the orphanage and it serves as a character of its own and really helps to set the mood of the film with the creaking and the cracking and pounding that comes out it. The film never goes for the cheap thrill or the blatant gore and gross out to scare, it builds mood and setting, and gets into your head letting you imagine what is going on a lot of the time. The mystery of the film is also very good and intrigues you to try and figure it out before the film lets you in on it, and I was not able to figure it out.
In the end, this is one of the best “horror” films in recent memory and it succeeds because it goes with the less is more theory, instead of trying to gross the viewer out the whole time. Hopefully the critical success of films like this and the Mist will encourage the studios to disturb rather than trying to make me throw up with gross out, cause these kinds of “horror” films I could get on board behind.