You are here

Orphanage, The (El Orfanato)

dir: Juan Antonio Bayona
[img_assist|nid=99|title=I'm getting scared just looking at her|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=470|height=353]
Orphanages. Orphanages, psych hospitals, prisons; places of suffering. Places where we can imagine people’s suffering has an almost physical manifestation, that it can impregnate the very walls of a building, rendering it supernatural in and of itself.

There’s a reason why such buildings keep cropping up in horror flicks and computer games. It could just be that people have limited imaginations, and are intellectually lazy when they’re pumping out their formula hackwork. But there’s also a very believable sense that such places can take on some kind of frightful energy from human torment, infecting them long after they have been abandoned.

By the living.

Why anyone would want to return to the orphanage that they grew up in is a mystery to me, but the protagonist of this here ghostly flick, which keeps being sold as a film made by Guillermo Del Toro despite only having him involved in an exec producer capacity, does so. Laura (Belen Rueda) left the place when she was seven, and has lived a long and fulfilling life up until the moment where she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) decide they want to open up a special school in the grounds of the orphanarium where she grew up for at least the first part of her childhood.

They have an adopted son called Simon (Roger Princep) who, apart from being an annoying little shit, is a wonderfully exuberant young boy who has imaginary friends. Of course, in a flick like this, you’re forced as an audience member to start wondering how imaginary those imaginary friends really are within the first few minutes.

For a flick advertised and praised as a ghost/horror flick, don’t be expecting special effects or CGI or anything, in fact. There are almost no special effects that look like special effects (in other words, any flick has some degree of digital editing or post-production stuff done to ‘fix up' scenes; that’s not what I’m talking about). The fraught atmosphere and creepiness comes from regular, more traditional methods.

For a flick that’s gotten so much positive press, I have to say it comes as a bit of a bemused surprise that most of the scares comes from very conventional set-ups as old as cinema itself. Using violins and similar stringed instruments to create a high-pitched moments leading up to scenes that may or may not be scary in and of themselves is enough to make the fat ghost of Alfred Hitchcock start haunting some movie studios as well.

The other standby is having a very quiet, sedate scene, with nothing much happening, and then going BAM! Scaring the shit out of the audience solely with sound rather anything inherently scary happening. I’ll be the first to admit that the times when they use this technique in The Orphanage had me leaping a metre or so out of my seat and swearing involuntarily. Still, that didn’t really change how I felt about the film.

As odd happenings start piling up, Simon goes missing. This happens fairly early on, so I don’t regard it as a spoiler per se. The rest of the film deals with Laura and Carlos searching for answers as to Simon’s disappearance, with Laura convinced that there is a supernatural explanation for his absence.

Her investigations open up another mystery simultaneously, about the fate of the children she left behind when she was adopted out of the orphanage. A strange old woman, with the thickest coke-bottle glasses I’ve ever seen, seems to have been involved in some way. Could she have been involved in Simon’s disappearance as well?

What about the strange deformed child Tomas who lived in isolation in the orphanage, who also attacked Laura just prior to Simon’s disappearance? What’s his deal, eh? What’s his caper?

The film’s cinematography and sound design go a long way towards creating the atmosphere such a flick needs to really be effectively creepy. It does work well. Aside from the aforementioned scares that had me jumping out of my skin (though I still regard them as ‘cheap’ scares), the absolute creepiest scene for my money was also pretty subtle. As the film opens we see Laura as a child playing a game with the other orphans where she knocks three times on a tree with her back turned to the other children, as they get ever closer when she’s not watching.

When they reprise the game later on in the film, I nearly ripped the stuffing out of the chair in front of me in the theatre.

Ultimately, since even ghost stories need to be about something else apart from ghosts, The Orphanage is really about the lengths a parent will go to in order to ‘save’ their child. How far will most parents go? What lengths will they be prepared to go in order to find their child or, at the very least, keep the hope alive that their child is still alive?

The answer is: All the way, but that sounds like some kind of 80s T&A delightful romp about teenage morons losing their virginity. Starring someone called Corey.

Laura shows progressively that there aren’t any limits on what she’ll do or believe in order to try to get Simon back. With such a character, of course the other characters around them either view them with anger or pity, or they enable them.

Of all the enablers on the planet, I never thought Geraldine Chaplin, playing a medium, would be one of them. Out of desperation, Laura enlists the aid of some paranormal ‘specialists’, and Chaplin, speaking surprisingly fluent Spanish (surprising to me, probably not to people who know her), strides around the orphanage in a very disquieting fashion.

She, importantly, is the one who tells Laura that believing is the key to seeing, and not vice versa.

When the story plays out to its devastating conclusion, the strongest element carried through is an ending that doesn’t cheat or cheapen the nature of what happened (i.e. the loss of a child). It also doesn’t lessen the impact of what happens with a gobbledygook magical ending with angels, unicorns or blue fairies.

The film’s only similarity with Pan’s Labyrinth, which for me was a much better film, is that the parallel between reality and perhaps a reality that isn’t real also exists here, in that a literal explanation for events coexists comfortably alongside the more poetically supernatural one. It sets up a similar dynamic of what could be interpreted as catering to having both a devastating and a happy ending at the same time in order to play it safe with audiences, but the truth is the flick earns the ending it has.

I don’t like the film. I can’t really explain or quantify why, except to say that I dislike where it ends up not because it doesn’t work, but because it does work. I am rendered unhappy by the ending because it is so effective, as is the film overall. Sure, there are flaws and plotholes in the story as depicted, but they only became glaringly obvious after I’d left the theatre and was thinking about the film, which I was for most of the weekend.

It’s probably better than I give it credit for, but in truth it’s not really anything that impressive or different. The topic of dealing (or not) with the loss of a child in increasingly insane ways is no longer an academic, hypothetical one for me, since becoming a parent. Certain topics now provoke painfully strong feelings in me. Cinema has always provoked strong feelings in me, but these ones overwhelm my brain and render me somewhat irrationally angry at flicks that use such subject matter as their plot materials.

The Orphanage is conversely, fairly mundane, but non-Hollywood, non-gratuitous and very effective. In the dark, with the volume turned way up, it will really do some sterling work on the unsuspecting.

7 times I swore loud enough during one of the scares to make the people sitting behind me laugh out of 10

“Why anyone would chose to be an orphan is beyond me.” – Annie