Sunday, February 22, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Orphanage (2007)

"It's in the subconscious that the living co-exist with the dead."

- A paranormal expert explains the concept of a ghostly "herald" to a grieving Laura (Belen Rueda) in The Orphanage.

No matter how many times I watch Juan Antonio Bayona's haunting The Orphanage (2007), I discard my notebook and pen by the movie's mid-point and simply have to watch, unfettered by professional considerations.

This movie casts a spell like few films I've seen. Comparisons to Robert Wise's The Haunting, Hooper's Poltergeist and Polanski's Rosemary's Baby are merited, and entirely appropriate,

Simply put, this Spanish terror outing is one of the most elegant, involving, disturbing, and utterly heart-breaking horror films of recent vintage. And -- for those very reasons -- one of the absolute best. At least by my estimate.

Of course, we all respond differently to films, but I can tell you without embarrassment or fear that this movie affects me on some deep, unexamined, emotional level. It's one of those films that you "feel" as you experience it, which makes a clinical, objective analysis problematic.

Perhaps it is because I'm the parent of a young child, and the parent-child relationship -- ups and downs -- informs the film's narrative sweep and resolution. Not in a cheap, easy, "get away from her you bitch" Hollywood style, but in an authentic, primal, hugely affecting way.

Perhaps it is because The Orphanage captures something important and nagging -- but almost intangible -- of evanescent childhood. The innocence, impermanence, loneliness...and terror.

Or maybe it is because the movie senses the fragility of mortality - especially a child's mortality (from a parent's perspective). The makers of The Orphanage seem to understand how one tiny second of parental selfishness, one instant with attention directed elsewhere, can lead to absolute, irrevocable disaster in the life of a child. Or of a parent.
The Orphanage depicts the story of Laura (Belen Rueda), a 37-year old woman who spent her childhood years in the Good Shepherd Orphanage with five friends, at least until she was adopted and given a new home elsewhere. Now, as an adult, Laura and her husband, a milquetoast doctor named Carlos, have moved back to the abandoned Orphanage with their adopted son, Simon (Roger Pricep). Simon is HIV positive, and as an only child he is lonely and least until he is befriended by five...perhaps six, imaginary playmates. One of them, Tomas, is...deformed.

On a day when Laura is hosting a gathering for special needs children, Simon learns of his nature as an adopted child; and that he is danger of dying young. Angry, he feels betrayed; that his parents have lied to him. Laura argues with him, and eventually slaps him across the face.

That's the last time she sees her boy.
Without a trace, without a clue, Simon vanishes. Six months agonizing months pass. Then nine. An increasingly desperate Laura comes to believe with all heart that Simon's ghostly imaginary friends have taken the boy somewhere, and that they will release him if only she plays a game with them. Laura recruits a psychic named Aurora (Geraldine Chapman) for a "summoning" in her house, but there is no sign of Simon. Later, Aurora asks Laura "how far" she is willing to go to see her son again. What exactly she means by that interrogative does not become clear until the film's coda.

Alone in the orphanage (her husband having all but abandoned her...), Laura goes about staging the facility as it looked when she was a child, when Simon's friends were not ghosts, but living, breathing children. She does this in hopes that the six ghosts will relent and help her locate her son. A scavenger/treasure hunt leads Laura to a secret chamber in the basement, and a final, heart-rending reckoning about what actually happened to Simon.

It is possible to interpret The Orphanage in a few ways. For instance, you could gaze at the film as a committed rationalist might and conclude, not inappropriately, that there are no supernatural bells and whistles involved at all. Laura's feelings of guilt are entirely responsible for the ghosts that often "appear." Remember, "it is in the subconscious that the living co-exist with the dead."

Accordingly, virtually everything that occurs in The Orphanage is readily explainable in terms of our consensus, natural reality. From the plaintive banging noises Laura hears inside the walls to Simon's discovery of his illness because of a hidden medical file (in a kitchen drawer), there is not necessarily anything to suggest ghosts or spooks.

Even a critical scene involving an "imaginary friend" at a beach-side cave is filmed ambiguously enough that the open-minded, analytical viewer might conclude no spirit was ever actually there (the footprints in the sand could belong to Simon himself...).

Thus Laura's state of mind is always in question. At a bereavement group, for instance, she reports that Simon's imaginary friends are haunting the house...and every mourning parent in that support group has a similar story to offer; of seeing dead loved ones. Are they all seeing ghosts? No...

...It's the subconscious mind's way of coping with the unacceptable, with the unthinkable. Or so we may believe.

On the other hand, as The Orphanage trenchantly points out, "seeing is not's the other way around."

Believing is...seeing. So it is entirely possible (and indeed much more to fun...) to take the spectral occurrences at face value; to believe that the Good Shepherd Orphanage is haunted by the spirits of the children who died there under tragic circumstances (a drowning, and a poisoning, respectively...). That Simon -- because of his illness -- boasts a special sensitivity to the nearby ghosts. to him. They...want to play with him.

One rewarding aspect of The Orphanage is its dedication to, well, intelligence. It doesn't spoon-feed you the solutions. It doesn't resort to cheap answers, or even cheap scares for that matter. Both "solutions" -- the imaginative horror one, and the rather depressing reality -- dwell side-by-side, or perhaps intertwined. As viewers we must select for ourselves what we believe. What is the limitation -- or breadth -- of our belief system?

In whatever way you ultimately choose to view The Orphanage, it is a splendidly realized film in terms of visuals...and shivers. A sequence involving the sing-song recitation of a childhood rhyme ("one, two, three...knock on the wall...") starts quietly and then escalates -- through repetition and a sense of anticipation -- into nothing less than full-throated terror. No special effects are deployed in the scene, merely the clever, effective use of a simple, repeated camera move: an unsteady pan across what by rights should be an empty room...but isn't.

Another chilling set-piece involves night-vision photography, static-y electronic monitors and our creepy old medium, Aurora, traversing the dark house in an attempt to locate "the ghosts." Again, simple but effective film technique is deployed to elevate suspense. During a psychic regression, there's a slow, methodical countdown from ten to one. With each additional number recitation, we get another slow zoom into the face of a concerned, freaked bystander. Then, as Aurora patrols the premises, the sounds of spirits are captured by technology, in the form of sine-waves, in close-up. They practically scream at you - jarring peaks and valleys of terror. The approach is spare, minimal...and absolutely riveting.

Bayona's camera itself seems perpetually unsettled, prowling uneasily about corridors and landscapes. The presence of the unseen is suggested...yet just out of reach. Like Simon himself...

I should also add that The Orphanage alludes frequently to Peter Pan, that childhood paean to "never growing up." Only here, Never-Land is clearly Death. The children never grow up...because they die. Watch for an early discussion of the character of Wendy, and the fact that she never returned to Never Land with Peter, but grew old instead; and that Laura considers herself similarly "too old" for Never Land.

In the course of the film, the ghostly children, and Simon himself teach Laura how to play again; how to understand the particular "powers" (and imagination) we associate most closely with the young, the innocent. When the Wendy/Peter Pan allusion pops up again in the stirring climax, it's an emotional apex...and you will realize just how carefully, how thoughtfully crafted this movie remains. Credit not just Bayona, but writer Sergio G. Sanchez. Together they've gifted horror fans a legitimate classic.

You may catch the deliberate resonances of Poltergeist (the missing child) or Henry James' Turn of the Screw (particularly Clayton's 1961 adaptation, The Innocents) in The Orphanage. Yet this movie boasts a poignant core, a sense of the human heart that, in some fashion, pushes it beyond any simple assembly of its notable influences, at least in terms of emotional impact. When all is finally revealed in the "little house" of Tomas -- when Laura must face the truth about what really happened to her son -- I guarantee will weep.

I know I did.


  1. I felt the need to comment, not only because no one else had, but because this movie had a great effect on me as well. I will freely admit sobbing like a child at the end. And any 'horror' film that can stir that kind of emotion, does something right. Again, like you said I think it's also due to the fact that you become a blathering wreck when you have kids.

    As I said in an earlier post, I'm still addicted to the site, working my way backward and reading all of the reviews that interest me. JKM you are the man.

  2. Jergy:

    Thank you my friend, not just for saying such nice things about me :), but for adding your commentary about this film to a lonely post. The Orphanage leaves me a blathering wreck too. It's haunting. I just have to mention it to my wife and she gets upset...

    You too...are the man! :)