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.