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Shriekfest 2010: “El Orfanato,” “Wolf Creek”

“El Orfanato” (2007)
Starring Belén Rueda, Roger Príncep, Fernando Cayo, Montserrat Carulla

Cheery, idyllic childhoods are uncommon. Laura (Rueda) believes she had one, and she wants to recreate the experience by reopening the orphanage of her youth, now a rambling, creaky building in disrepair. Since moving in, though, Laura and her husband Carlos (Cayo) have noticed some alarming changes in their adopted son Simón (Príncep). Simón begins to talk of a new friend, Tomás – invisible to Laura and Carlos – who lives in the orphanage and wears a sack mask. An eerie woman (Carulla) who claims to be a social worker shows up unannounced with a file on Simón; later that night, Laura spots her lurking in the coal shed. The bizarre events culminate in Simón’s disappearance, and Laura’s growing suspicions that the orphanage may be haunted by ghosts of the friends she left behind. In that respect, “El Orfanato” is a beautifully shot, nerve-wracking ghost story in deliciously ominous setting. Director Juan Antonio Bayona goes only for the under-the-skin frights – the unexplained thumps and bangs above and in the walls; unrelenting, hostile silence; Laura’s growing certainty that someone or something in the house is toying with her. Or has her grief driven her to the brink of madness? Bayona – and Rueda, who delivers a raw, heart-twisting performance – give away nothing until the moment is absolutely right. Because in “El Orfanato,” as in all good ghost stories, it’s the tale, the people and spirits wrapped up in it that matter most. A

“Wolf Creek” (2005)
Starring Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, John Jarratt

The forever-winding Australian outback is said to be one of the harshest, most inhospitable natural environments in the world. Greg McLean has that dusty, barren soil in his blood, which explains why in “Wolf Creek” the outback feels as much like a character as any of the unknown actors. The terrain appears to watch, silently and knowingly, as three friends – English tourists Liz (Magrath) and Kristy (Morassi), plus their Aussie pal Ben (Phillips) – travel deeper into the middle of nowhere in search of a crater. It’s but a matter of time before the car won’t crank and the trio faces a night huddled together inside, away from the unforgiving landscape. Obliging, helpful chap Mick (Jarratt) drives up, his headlights like glowing animal eyes breaking up the darkness, and offers to tow them to his camp and fix the car. In his odd smile and tone there’s an edge only Ben catches, but he’s outnumbered and a little too eager to impress Liz. Only after Mick has towed the travelers hours from the crater do they realize his only interest in mercy is making them scream bloody murder for it. The unblinking torture (like the bit with the severed spinal cord) and the endless, agonized sobbing are a bit gratuitous at times, and certainly a bit heavy-handed, but McLean does what he sets out to. He crafts a film that flirts with torture porn yet has enough smarts, psychological chills and awe-worthy cinematography to stand squarely apart from it. B+