Regardless of its air of self-seriousness, The Orphanage is nonsense of the first order. Juan Antonio Bayona’s directorial debut, arriving at this year’s New York Film Festival with the “produced by” imprint of last year’s fest fave Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), is little more than a nonsensical, frequently ludicrous version of The Others, a ghost story in which character motivation is haphazard and scares as scarce as narrative logic. Decades after leaving an orphanage to live with foster parents, Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the now-abandoned institution with a husband (Fernando Cayo) and her own foster son (Roger Príncep’s Simón) – who, for unknown plot reasons, has HIV – to establish a center for handicapped kids. Once ensconced in the creepy building, bump-in-the-night weirdness commences, from a strange old lady lurking around the property to Simon playing treasure-hunt games with imaginary (or are they?) friends and then, eventually, vanishing. A kid in a sack mask haunts Laura at a party, trying to compel her to solve a long-buried crime involving Laura’s former foster care pals, their caretaker, and a John Merrick-looking deformed child. That the primary mystery lacks mysteriousness drains The Orphanage of suspense, which is largely replaced by a sense of parodic ridiculousness epitomized by baffling Peter Pan allusions that are introduced early and then revisited at the tale’s hokey epilogue. Still, for sheer silliness, nothing tops a scene in which Laura’s hubby valiantly gives mouth-to-mouth to a female car accident victim – and then director Bayona, in a money shot which is meant to be haunting but in fact is only hilarious, quickly cuts to reveal that the woman’s smashed visage no longer features a mouth.
(2007 New York Film Festival)