My Horror Movie Project Part 2: The Orphanage (2007)
In recent years Spanish filmmakers seem to have cornered the market on one of the horror genre’s oldest subgenres – the ghost story. In 2001 Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others both found critical acclaim, while The Others was a huge international hit. The Orphanage (2007) follows the trend, but has a unique take on the spirit world. It is less a horror film than an intricately crafted mystery of the supernatural. And although I have a couple of bones to pick, I enjoyed it.
Carlos and Laura purchase the sprawling seaside orphanage where Laura spent her early childhood. They plan to make it into a home for special needs kids. Their dream is shattered when their adopted son Simon vanishes without a trace during an open house for the proposed facility. The situation is made more urgent because Simon is HIV positive, and needs constant medication. As Laura uncovers the tragic history of the orphanage, she becomes convinced that making contact with its ghosts is her only hope of finding her son.
Like Jennifer Kent’s excellent 2014 film, The Babadook, The Orphanage derives power by anchoring its fantastic story in the (sadly) all too real world. First time director Juan Antonio Bayona immerses the viewer in the ordeal of parents seeking a lost child. He sensitively depicts the strain as weeks turn into months and Carlos feels that they must accept their loss, while Laura doggedly continues with the search. Bayona does not judge Laura. Is she being a heroic, devoted mother, or is she slipping deeper into a dangerous state of denial? It is up to us to decide.
This brings me to my first sticking point. I can’t shake the nagging feeling that Bayona, given the choice, would have been totally satisfied staying with the family drama and the skillfully layered plot puzzle. What I mean is, I don’t think Bayona really wants to scare us. Since The Orphanage was totally promoted as a horror film, this is a bit of a problem. The film does maintain a suitably creepy atmosphere, and does offer powerful images like that of the boy Tomas, who wears a burlap sack with a disturbing faux face on it. Still, these touches seem driven more by the need to live up to the marketing campaign than by the director’s personal vision.
In desperation Laura enlists the aid of a medium named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplain). She stages a chaotic session at the orphanage where Aurora makes contact with the spirits of several children who appear to be in terrible distress. Carlos thinks it is a scam, and throws her out. As she is leaving, she tells a distraught Laura, “Seeing is not believing – it is the other way around.” This is a kind of empowering epiphany for Laura.
She throws herself headlong into recreating the orphanage of her childhood, making the beds, preparing a huge meal, even donning an employee uniform. In one of the film’s best scenes she draws the child spirits out by playing a version of the game “Red Light Green Light”. She does finally find Simon. Not only is he dead, but Laura realizes that she was an unwitting accomplice in the tragedy. Inconsolable, she swallows a handful of pills, taking her life.
This would have been a bleak, but powerful ending. Instead, moments later Laura reawakens to find not only Simon but also the ghost children. They are her childhood friends from the orphanage. As she calls them to her embrace, the music romantically swells. All we need is for Tinkerbell to fly into the foreground and sprinkle some fairy dust to make it officially Disneyesque. The magic even extends to a coda that implies that Laura and company are going to come back to console the bereaved Carlos. In a film so rooted in reality, and so melancholy in tone, this finale came off as too sharp of a left turn for me.
But this is not a put down. My asterisks aside, The Orphanage features more pluses than minuses. For the first time out of the chute, Bayona does a good and stylish job presenting a fascinating story. Like The Sixth Sense, or A Tale of Two Sisters, a second viewing is almost mandatory to really see how all of the pieces fit. The acting is solid and believable, especially Belen Rueda as Laura.
Directors like Kent and Amenabar know that in a horror film that the scares, when done right, make the drama even more potent. The Orphanage is quite good, but If Bayona ever really takes this lesson to heart, watch out.