I never thought I’d say this, but orphans scare the bejesus out of me. In the same vein as Stephen King’s classic Children of the Corn, The Orphanage manages to take the most innocent and harmless characters and turn them into the most frightening fiends. The wildly successful Spanish import (originally titled El Orfanato) was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, who has previously been recognized exclusively for his Spanish pop music videos. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro (director of 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth) appears to have had much creative influence over this surrealistic horror film, which stylistically bears a strong resemblance to Pan’s Labyrinth.
The film opens at a rural WWII era orphanage in Spain. Laura (Belen Ruéda) is shown playing outside with other orphans as a nun arranges her pending adoption with a loving family. Three decades later, Laura returns with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and young (adopted) son Simón (Roger Príncep) to the orphanage to start her own haven for mentally ill children. Simón seems cute and innocent, until he begins conversing with his imaginary playmates who seem to be shockingly antagonistic towards his parents.
On the day the mental care center is set to launch, Simón disappears at the costume party amongst other children, who are disguised behind costumes and paper-maché masks. This is one of the more chilling scenes of the film, as the line blurs between children pretending to be monsters and supernatural creatures pretending to be children. Laura spends the next several months searching for answers and for her missing son by exploring the orphanage that seems to have swallowed him up. Laura’s obsessive search for her son leads her to the brink of madness, as she starts to believe the only path to Simón has gone through another realm.
The superb ending of The Orphanage defines it; the audience is furnished with a cohesive explanation of the murderous and supernatural history of the orphanage, but left with a lingering curiosity about the objectivity of Laura’s perspective. Laura tiptoes the line between reality and fantasy, but because the majority of the ghost story is seen through her perspective, the audience is never quite sure whether Laura’s visions are real or imagined.
The incredible anxiety that the film develops creates the ideal atmosphere for a horror film. The Orphanage got this genre right by focusing on the buildup to the shocking moments rather than non-stop violence and gore with which now atypical slasher film (Saw, Hostel) bombards the audience. Most horror movies today seek to surprise the audience with a monster or murderer leaping out at every corner. The Orphanage takes a more patient, and ultimately more successful approach to its scares. The ghosts and monsters in this film lurk just outside the frame, alerting the audience to their presence but rarely forcing confrontation with the protagonists. It is more effective to let the viewer wonder what goes bump in the night than to desensitize them with a self-indulgent scream-fest of CGI monsters and fake blood-and-guts.
A perfect example of this technique is demonstrated during Laura’s monologue about her missing son. As someone (presumably her husband, Carlos) crawls into bed with Laura, she laments on how she wished she had treated Simón better, or protected him more. As Laura speaks, a menacing figure’s shadow blocks out the light in the doorway, accompanied by an inhuman thud with each step. Laura tenses up and whispers frantically, “Carlos, there is someone in the hallway.” The door opens and as Carlos crosses the threshold and comes into focus, Laura has the horrible realization that whomever she was just spooning with was not her dear husband.
The cinematography and imagery keep this ghost tale realistic and frightening. Óscar Faura’s exceptional camerawork keeps everything that scares us just out of frame and out of focus. The chipping paint of the abandoned orphanage and soft hues of faded yellow, alabaster, and earthy brick-red help recreate the isolated Spanish countryside from an indistinguishable time period. As Laura explores the hidden chambers and dark bowels of this long-silenced orphanage, she is seen through the perspective of whatever is creeping behind her. Her eyes never meet the camera’s lens, and she remains blissfully ignorant of her surroundings as the audiences’ skin crawls. One cannot help but yelling futilely at the screen — “Don’t go there!” and “Watch out behind you!”
The Orphanage sustains an uneasiness and fear that keeps you sweating and glued to your seats throughout. The film’s biggest asset is consistency — The Orphanage manages to sustain tension that allows the viewer to remain immersed in the story rather than laugh at the silliness of the surreal. This film will not satisfy those with short attention spans, or horror film enthusiasts whose satisfaction is directly proportional to the gallons of blood spilled. But for the rest of us, The Orphanage provides an entertaining and thrilling experience through long build-ups of gut-wrenching suspense. The Orphanage does not lack climaxes; the audience is rewarded with rare but highly fulfilling moments of terror. A word to the wise: do not see this movie if you plan on living in or working at an orphanage anytime soon.