The Orphanage

Lovecraft once famously said of horror fiction that atmosphere is the absolute, most important thing.Truer words were never spoken, and for fans of what might be called “softer” horror – such classics as “The Haunting,” “The Changeling,” and “The Others” – this is particularly true. When one doesn’t have dismemberment, slimy creatures, great fountains of gushing blood, torture or power tools to hold the audience’s attention, atmosphere is the final trump card.

The Spanish film “The Orphanage” (recently released on DVD) is a movie in the latter tradition, one of relatively few excellent ghost movies to have been made recently –or ever,if the truth be told. The product of first-time director and writer Juan Antonia Bayona and Sergio Sanchez (and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who directed the excellent “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”) the movie is a minor masterpiece of wonderfully eerie atmosphere.

orphanage-2.jpg

 Say hello to my little — dead — friend.

 Set in the hauntingly beautiful Cantabria region of northern Spain, the movie is visually high gothic, with misty seacoasts replete with shadowy caves and an appropriately Addamsesque old mansion with long dark corridors and hidden rooms. A melancholy score accents rainy and nocturnal landscapes, all of it combining to create a finely tuned sense of something very sinister lurking somewhere, just out of the range of vision and perception.

The story is no less subtle and gothic than the setting. The mansion in question is actually a former orphanage, in which the female protagonist, Laura, portrayed beautifully by Belén Rueda, spent her own youth. There are indeed troubled slivers of the past slipping through the musty old place – and equally disturbing goings-on in the present, especially when Laura’s adopted son inexplicably disappears.

There is an underlying mystery to the story, which achieves the neat trick of leaving the ultimate answer to the viewer. In other words, is the wretched old manse haunted or is something else entirely going on?Or, perhaps, both?The question is discussed intriguingly by Bayona in a web interview on The Deadbolt.com (http://www.thedeadbolt.com/news/102913/bayonasanchez_interview.php).

Saying much more about the story would amount to plot-killing. Suffice to say that there are plenty of worthy scares– and one or two downright spine-chilling moments – in “The Orphanage,” as well as a story that is not only spooky but essentially human and infinitely sad.That’s a very fine and delicate balance to achieve in film, and Bayona and Sanchez pull it off with style and grace.

If horror with only a light dash of gore – but heavy on the fear factor and rich in atmosphere– is your cup of tea, check this one out.

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