Less a recommendation this week than a warning – I finally got around to watching recent Spanish chiller The Orphanage (2007), anticipating something satisfactory after glowing reviews, but the alarm bells started ringing early. Haven’t I heard those ominous sustained string chords somewhere before? Why yes, on the library record of archetypal creepy movie music. Why is everything shot in faux monochrome? (apart, irrelevantly, for some stained glass. Is there a religious angle? No). Could the imaginary friends of young Simón possibly be ghosts? Why of course they are. Did the film-makers perhaps enjoy The Others a bit too much?

In fairness, Belen Rueda does a fairly decent job as Laura, the harried mother. She’s moved with her husband and adopted son, Simón, into the orphanage where she grew up to start a children’s home. But the kid disappears, she’s convinced the imaginary friends have something to do with it, and lo and behold she starts acting like she’s crazy. There’s a mysterious old woman, a kid with a sack over its head and one button for an eye (obviously a button with four holes, so the thread looks like a dead-eye cross – I know I’ve seen that somewhere before too, perhaps in a comic book) and, eventually, the bodies of dead children in what looks like (irrelevantly) a concentration camp oven.

I’ll give away the ending too, because it’s the best bit. The kids were murdered when Laura was at the orphanage. They were her friends and they want to be reunited. It’s actually quite touching, and makes something of a mockery of all the sinister stuff that’s gone before, but it’s far too little far too late. There’s also a neat sequence when reliable old Geraldine Chaplin pops up as a psychic, wandering around the mansion under the eerie eye of an infra-red camera while Laura and her husband, the psychic cronies and the police psychiatrist watch on monitors. But who’s operating the mobile camera? And why are they using old reel-to-reel tape machines? Of course we learn that “when something terrible happens it sometimes leaves a trace”. Much like the annoyingly nagging memory of a poor film.

The duel between spiritualism and rationalism is treated superficially and yet still bungled. Standard-issue creepy dolls keep popping up. The orphanage creaks and goes bump in the night in hoary old haunted house fashion. Those strings even rip off Psycho at one point. And thanks to a shot of a mysterious figure, unseen by any of the characters in a low-tide cave, there’s not even any ambiguity as to whether Laura is actually crazy or not. You can add to this repeated shots of drifting clouds, a view of the house with a child’s garden toy positioned sinisterly in a foreground corner, artificially ramped hysteria as Laura searches for her missing son, and a sudden death by speeding bus. The children’s predicament is compared specifically with the lost boys of Peter Pan, but the film plays out as though they’re more frightening than Captain Hook. The final straw is the Turn of the Screw shot from an upstairs window of a mysterious child standing on a moonlit lawn. The film is a hodge-podge, peppered with false leads: one’s tempted to wonder if husband Carlos is not having it off with the all-too-convenient police psychologist Pilar; and why in this day and age is there no suspicion cast on the parents? More pertinently, with all the other kids taken care of in the end, who’s to look after poor old Tomás, the kid with the deformed face under the sack? The last film that annoyed me so much with its superficial technique, undercooked subtext and questionable originality was Guillermo del Toro’s criminally over-praised Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s the “Presented By..” producer here, and is starting to get on my nerves.

image: imdb