J.A. Bayona (Director) and Guillermo Del Toro (Executive Producer) have joined forces and the results are phenomenal. The product of this union is The Orphanage – an exceptional haunted house film.
Free of cheap scares and senseless gore – The Orphanage relies on setting, story, and artful camera work. I love it when I can praise a modern film for utilizing the time-tested techniques of classic scare films. I will continue to distinguish the traditional “goodness” from the modern “blah” again and again until the creators of lesser films get the message. This film is in good company with other modern and relatively modern greats such as The Others (Alejandro Amenábar) and The House at the End of Time (Alejandro Hidalgo). Spanish filmmakers seem to have exactly what it takes when it comes to creating haunted house films.
Back to The Orphanage. Let’s begin with the environment. Set in a seashore atmosphere, with thrashing waves, seaside caves and a lighthouse just few waves away, The Orphanage effectively uses this striking setting to bring forth haunts. The ghosts of children lurk in the cave, the battering waves nearly captures a mother who desperately searches for her missing child, and the lighthouse, is it a beacon of hope? The multi-level home, a former residence for orphaned children, has hidden rooms and buried secrets. Its long dark hallways seem to be calling out for ghosts.
Here’s a brief synopsis: As a child, Laura was an orphan who lived in residence hall that is the subject of this film. She was adopted and left behind several of her orphan friends. Many years later, the orphanage has closed down and the adult Laura sets out to reopen it as a home for disabled children. She and her husband and their little boy Simon move in and before they can set out on their goal of reopening the facility, strange things happen. The strangeness begins when little Simon tells his parents about his imaginary friends.
Consider such scenarios that are common in many haunted house films: children with sensitivities toward paranormal phenomena; a house haunted by ghostly children. These can be genuinely creepy scenarios so long as the film is done right. Take for instance a little girl dressed up in zombie-like fashion that jumps out with a deafening scream – I’m sorry but this isn’t creepy (Hello Amityville Horror Remake of 2005!) Scary perhaps, but not creepy, and I prefer the creepy.
To capture the creepiness factor, the lines between reality and a child’s fantasy must be ever so subtly blurred. There must be layers of terror lurking underneath the shield of innocence, with each successive layer becoming more and more disturbing. And what’s more innocent than childhood games! The Orphanage has several scenes where a game puts a chain of creepy events into motion. There’s the game where someone faces a wall and counts while a group of children slowly advance on the counter. They freeze when the counter turns around at intervals of five. Then there’s the game where the object is to solve a riddle by following a trail of clues. Something hidden in a dresser might lead to a note on a statue, and son on. Imagine these games played inside a haunted house where ghosts decide to join in the fun. Or maybe the ghosts are the makers of such games? The point is that this film successfully builds a bridge between innocence and terror and we the viewers walk this bridge in exhilarating trepidation.
Perhaps the creepiest element of this film is the child that hides his face underneath a sack with eyeholes cut out of it. He doesn’t have to jump out in front of the camera to create a scare. His mysterious presence is frightening enough. Who is this? Is it Simon playing some kind of game or is it someone else?
All this and I haven’t delved into the plight of Laura, Simon’s mother. After Simon, she is the next in line to be the receiver of haunts. As a former resident of the home, she is best equipped to deal with the mystery that envelops the house and ties the whole story together. Is she up to the task?
There is a whole lot more going on in this film but I will say no more. Trust me when I sat that this is a great film. It is filled with mystery and suspense. The story is well written and, did I mention that it is creepy? I guess I did. It is creepy indeed!