This is the second year in a row I’ve broken the New Year in with a Guillermo del Toro produced film, I’d like to make it a tradition. The Orphanage (or El Orfanato) is probably the most frightening horror film I’ve seen this year and more frightening than anything I saw last year. It’s a ghost story, one that follows in the footsteps of some of the best; Poltergeist, The Innocents, The Haunting, The Shining, The Sixth Sense, The Devil’s Backbone and most recently The Others. Only it’s better than The Others and not as good as some of the others. It’s about a woman, Laura, who goes back to the orphanage she grew up in to start a home for the mentally disabled, only to find that there are children already living there. Cree-ee-py! But it’s not Laura, it’s her son, Simone, that sees what’s happening around them first. See, he has harmless invisible friends. So Laura and her husband think nothing of it when he meets a couple more. Simone has also been adopted and suffers from a disease that’s only hinted at in the beginning, but turns out to be surprising – something I wish the film had dealt a little more directly with as a theme, but the movie isn’t ambitious in that sense. In the end it could have been any life threatening disease or illness.
In every good ghost story there’s a reason for ghosts to exist. There’s a reason why certain people can see them. There’s always some theory about traces being left behind because of a murder or suicide. It’s the mystery, the unknown. A filmmakers way of doping it up for the audience. Something that’s become common because of the rise in Japanese horror films like The Ring – here it’s far more clever than most films. Is the ghost good or bad? What’s its motivation? What do we see and what’s implied? Is it really evil? The Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G Sanchez, know when to hold their cards. They tease and poke and prod the audience and they do it well. The pacing swings like a pendulum, back and forth, every now and then the blade dropping suddenly closer to your gut. And you feel it as Laura becomes more encapsulated in this dark world. And it’s not only that you see it, you hear it. The camera moves along the halls like it did in The House on Haunted Hill. The sounds rattle and rumble from within. There’s a whole sequence in which we see nothing, but hear everything. How much is in their world and how much is in ours we wonder? It’s a question that has ramifications.
You see, the ghosts in this movie want to play a game. A harmless one in fact. Right? Is a child that wants to play a game evil? I guess you’ll have to see the movie.
The great thing about this movie is that the human elements within grow and build along with the more frightening elements, one being as scary as the other, until, well, until it gets so scary and emotionally involving you start to worry that the end of the film might not be able to keep up. That is the greatest fear of all. Once you find out who or what the ghosts are, why they exist, then the fear has the chance of dissipating, and you’re left with the human side of the story, the emotional side. The Sixth Sense was able to survive beyond the fear. While the end of The Orphanage is fitting and smart, it left me sitting at the side lines a little.
I think a large part of that is due to the fact that Laura should have gotten it a lot earlier. The audience gets what’s going on almost immediately. The audience wants to get it. They believe what her son Simone says, because it’s more fun to. So for a good portion of the movie we’re left patiently waiting for Laura to catch up to us, when she does the film hits that rhythm again. There continues to be startling and emotional scenes throughout, even so, when that end comes it’s difficult to feel completely sympathetic because we believed a lot earlier. Also I felt that the emotional climax came a bit to early and I was left with a few too many minutes of movie to watch, and several more moments to play out. It’s a minor hiccup that hurts the last couple scenes – on the first viewing anyway. I have a feeling this film will grow on me. There are intricacies in the storytelling that add a richness to the characters and the film that it will be worth growing with it.
So this is a flawed film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not truly effective. Some of the greatest films are flawed. If you’re tired of the Saws and Hostels of the world, then see this. Don’t let the fact that it’s a foreign film scare you away, because it’s smart, spooky and a lot of fun. There are images and characters that will now be ingrained into my conscious forever. While you may not leave the theatre believing, it will scare the hell out of you.
Tags: Belen Rueda, El Orfanato, Geraldine Chaplin, Ghost Story, Guillermo del Toro, horror film, Juan Antonio Bayona, Sergio G Sanchez, Spanish films, The Devil's Backbone, The Haunting, The Innocents, The Orphanage, The Others, The Shining, The Sixth Sense