If These Walls Could Talk, They'd Scream

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

"The Orphanage" doesn't need special effects to haunt us -- just one delicately disturbing idea: The most powerful ghosts are the ones we create ourselves.

In a simple children's game -- the Spanish equivalent of red light, green light -- we see how innocently such specters can take root. Silhouetted against a Gothic orphanage, a 7-year-old girl faces a tree as her friends stealthily advance. Something about these shadowy figures, their almost funereal school uniforms and those tiny, extending hands tells us there's more to this scene than youthful diversion. And we're immediately attuned to the ominous nuances that distinguish this elegant Spanish horror movie, produced by Guillermo del Toro, creator of last year's chilly masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth."

Directed by Spanish first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona, "The Orphanage" hearkens to the more character-oriented tradition of such classic spookers as 1968's "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Innocents," a 1961 film about a governess convinced her charges are haunted by spirits. In all these films, tension is heightened -- and made more real -- by framing spectral or macabre events within a psychological reality. We spend the film wondering if these phenomena are real or if the central character is imagining them.

In "The Orphanage," that 7-year-old grows up to be the 37-year-old Laura (Bel¿n Rueda), who purchases the former orphanage, intending to establish a home for special-needs children. How that childhood memory plays into her life, which she now shares with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simon (Roger Pr¿ncep), becomes the story's main thrust. Not long after the family moves in, Simon disappears. After conducting an extensive police search, and even resorting to a medium (a glowingly affecting Geraldine Chaplin), Laura turns her attention -- where else can she go? -- inward. Her confrontation with herself becomes the movie's most riveting section.

By concentrating as much on Laura's emotional state as the external apparitions she believes she sees, the filmmakers engage us in ways we're not used to in most scare flicks, including ghost dramas like "What Lies Beneath" or the "torture porn" horror flicks such as "Saw" and "Hostel." In those films, what terrifies us also protects us: Deep down, we know none of those evil creations is going to follow us home.

Instead, in "The Orphanage," we feel disconcertingly connected to this character. Who hasn't wondered about his own sanity, or isn't troubled, in some respect, by traumatic episodes of the past? And then there's the big kahuna question: How much are we creators of our own troubles? "The Orphanage," Spain's Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, delves into these and other philosophical issues.

Stylistically, "The Orphanage," reflects the lessons of past classics. Eschewing the shock tactics of so much modern horror, in which fear is practically forced on the audience with jarring sound effects, loud music and over-the-top violence, it uses music and effects in an almost subliminal way. The movie draws us out of our passive state; we become active voyeurs and alert listeners. We're on edge, as much for the screaming absence of Hollywood-style "boo" cues as our own anticipation. And we know with increasing dread, that the scary stuff is coming, with the silent stealth of those creepy children.

The Orphanage (100 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for disturbing content, including violence. In Spanish with subtitles.

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