Seven year old Simón sees dead people. Or to be more precise, he sees the ghosts of the former residents of a creepy Spanish orphanage in Juan Antonio Bayona’s accomplished debut, El Orfanato. But when Simón vanishes one sunny afternoon, it’s not clear whether his disappearance is accidental, or whether – as his pannicked mother Laura begins to fear – he has been snatched by spirits.
El Orfanato is stylish and sophisticated; it’s not a horror movie, per se, but it captures a marvellous sense of unease throughout. Stand out of course is the luminous Belen Rueda as Laura – her descent from initial panic to to grief to the madness of hope and finally to despair is terrible, compelling and strangely watchable. And then of course there’s Spain, a country which really generally just kicks ass, but is particularly photogenically represented here. El Orfanato was filmed in the north-eastern community of Asturias, a region of rugged mountains, and mystical storm-battered beaches dotted with cliffs and caves (think Cornwall rather than Costa del Sol.)
The orphanage itself is played by a house called El Palacio de Partarriu – an odd, brooding colonial-style home that’s located to the east of the town of Llanes, in the direction of Santander. The house which was completed in 1898, has several different facades that cannily contributes to the odd sense that the house is constantly changing and alive. (In fact though, 80% of the shoot, including most of the interiors, took place on an 11000sqft sound stage in Barcelona.)
Guillermo del Toro, who made Pan’s Labyrinth is the producer here, and although this is a more modern-day tale, there are still parallels to that film. And it also reminded me of Nicole Kidman’s The Others. All three have big creepy houses, unnerving spirits and an ambience of loss and melancholy. Worth watching.