The organic foreboding conjured by an opening prelude torn from the past -- depicting children at play outdoors on a beautiful summer day full of pollen and petals, their caretakers looking on from inside a looming manor -- calls to mind elusive, unclassifiable films like Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Innocence" rather than genre movies of the horror variety to which "The Orphanage" belongs. Too bad, then, that this beguiling subtlety is quickly upended as the opening credits roll -- kicking off with a big "Guillermo del Toro Presents" banner that signals the film's bald bid to become this year's "Pan's Labyrinth" (a dubious prospect if you happened to find that Foreign Language Oscar nominee overhyped, as I did) -- to the tune of a score distractingly reminiscent of "Psycho" and indicative of the more well-worn path Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona's feature debut will follow.
When grown-up orphan Laura (Belen Rueda) -- along with husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and child Simon (Roger Princep) -- moves back into her long-abandoned orphanage, the house's haunting quickly manifests itself in the arrival of more "imaginary friends" for her son. Based on a script by Sergio G. Sanchez, the film soon launches into conventional supernatural thriller assault, bells, whistles, ham-fisted soundtrack, and all: Recurring knocks and thumps sound around the house, the wind picks up just enough to push the playground equipment around in creaky, portentous ways, and creepy dolls litter various rooms.
But the most egregiously tired cliches are bundled into an opening party Laura and Carlos throw to celebrate the launch of a special-needs children's center -- the orphanage reconceived -- amidst which the parents lose track of Simon in a whirlwind of carnival music and masked kids; all that's missing from the proceedings is a clown. Disturbingly, several children with Down Syndrome have seemingly been cast just to amp up the episode's grotesquerie, but the funhouse horror isn't complete until Laura gets shoved into a shower by a sack-headed kid we later learn to be Tomas (Oscar Casas), Simon's most recent "friend."
The mother's search for the missing boy continues for months, leading her, of course, to uncover hidden aspects of the house's history. This culminates in a requisite twist ending apparently so shocking the film's publicists are requesting it be kept under wraps. But this secrecy places undue emphasis on the "surprise," which hardly turns out to be a revelation. Although the story's moving parts -- Laura's orphaned childhood, adopted Simon's HIV-positive status, the reopening of the orphanage for disabled children, Tomas's disfigurement, Peter Pan references -- suggest a significant synthesis forthcoming, the finale fails to cohere these details in the manner of, say, Alejandro Amenabar's sublime "The Others," to which "The Orphanage" clearly aspires. Although Bayona shows a surprisingly steady hand for a first-timer, his horror flick -- neither incompetent (admittedly, I screamed out loud at one point) nor particularly imaginative in fulfilling its generic aims -- simply doesn't leave much of an impression, no matter its artier, Cannes and New York Film Festival-anointed veneer.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]