AKA LE ORFANATA
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME:105 min
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1975 Spain, a young girl named Laura is adopted. Years later, adult Laura returns to the now-closed orphanage, accompanied by her husband, Carlos and their seven-year-old adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. Laura plans to reopen it as a facility for disabled children. Simón claims to have befriended a boy named Tomás, and draws pictures of him as a child wearing a sack mask, while social worker Benigna begins to nose around to Laura’s irritation. Simón teaches Laura a game which lead the two to Simón’s adoption file. Simón becomes angry, and says that his new friend told him that Laura is not his biological mother and that he is going to die soon. During a party for the orphanage’s opening, Laura sees a child wearing a sack mask who shoves her into a bathroom and locks her inside. Escaping, she finds that Simón is missing….
Every now and again the film lover says to his or herself stuff like: “Why haven’t I seen this before”? or “how on earth has it taken so long for me to me to see this movie”? while watching a truly fine film which has somehow passed him or her by until now. I do actually recall The Orphanage being on at my local cinema for one day but there was no way I could have made any the showings. In any case, The Others now has competition for best ghost movie of the naughties, because The Orphanage is a terrific film, albeit almost as much a psychological drama as it is a horror film. I had a feeling that I would be frightened, as indeed I was, but I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be in bloody tears come the film’s conclusion. As I type now the sadness is going a little but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about a parent’s love for his or her child [or – in this case – adopted child, which gives it extra poignancy] which has affected so much, at least for a considerable amount of time – and I don’t even have kids. This is such an emotionally rich movie that it also being a scary horror movie has probably put off some people who would get a great deal out of the film from seeing it. It’s also juicily ambiguous and leaves quite a bit unexplained. Considering the care taken with much of the film, I would say that this was completely intentional.
Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez first wrote a script in 1996 and wanted to direct, but was repeatedly turned down before offering it to J. A. [Juan Antonio] Bayona in 2004. Bayona cut parts of the script, including the outcome of the other orphanage children, but had to double both the film’s budget and the amount of filming time, though he got help when Guillermo del Toro offered to co-produce. Location shooting took place in Llanes, Asturias, where the orphanage was an old colonial house from the end of the 19th century, though most of the film was shot on sound stages in Barcelona. Bayona liked to startle cast members to get them in the right mood and Geraldine Chaplin’s scream in the film is real because Bayona is actually grabbing her leg. When Sánchez told the little girl who plays the blind orphan that she had pretty eyes, she replied, “Oh, do you like them? I picked them out myself” He didn’t know that she was diagnosed at a very young age with a degenerative eye disease that was going to leave her blind, and that one of the last things her parents did while she could still see was let her see a big selection of glass eyes and choose the ones she wanted. Bayona shortened the beginning [where you originally got to know the orphans ] and the ending, plus a few other moments, before the film was released to huge success in Spain. The same year, New Line Cinema bought the rights to produce a remake with Del Toro, who said he’d planned to remake it using the original script while the original movie was still in production, as producer. In 2011, it was reported that Amy Adams was in talks to star as Laura, the main character, but since then the project has thankfully gone into ‘development hell’.
What with its opening shot of clouds panning down to the orphanage of the title and its titles revealed by wallpaper being peeled back, The Orphanage scores even before anything has happened. Simón is first seen with a bed sheet over himself having had a nightmare [or has he?] and requires Laura to pretend that his two imaginary friends Watson and Pepe are coming to see him. A really sweet moment has Laura tell him that some light is going to protect him and position his alarm clock so that light appears to emit from the unused lighthouse in the distance out of the window. The first scene involving a ghost has Simón saying “hello” to the camera, which then slwoly zooms into the darkness [something this movie does several times and it’s so damn unsettling] before we cut to Laura finding him whispering to some unseen person. Of course both parents think that Simón, a very lonely and sick child, has just got another imaginary friend, and even we wonder that at first when some bumps emitting from the shed turn out to be social worker Benigna snooping about. Laura is locked in the bathroom – an event preceeded by her hitting Simón in anger at his stubbornness – by a child wearing a sack cloth mask, something that creeped me out a little as I’ve always found that look, even if it’s quite generic, a little frightening. Giving Jason Voorhees a hockey mask may have ensured that that character became a horror icon, but he scared me in Friday The 13th Part 2 more when he was just wearing a sack over his head.
Then suddenly the plot changes as Simón disappears and it seems like we’re watching a totally different kind of film for a while, though it’s still totally riveting and even exciting because one feels that this movie could go down any path it wants to….and then out of the blue we get a sudden death and a brilliant jump scare of an arm moving which almost sent me through the roof. Bayona is great at this kind of thing [there’s a terrific hand-on-shoulder moment later], but what he really enjoys is the longer, more subtle kind of scary moments where it’s more about anticipation and the mind has to fill in some of the picture. Laura, once she realises that Simón’s supposedly imaginary friends could actually be very real indeed, has a medium come out, and we see her from the point of view of several cameras as she goes around the house sensing presences, until we hear the sound of children’s voices which first whisper, but then begin to cry and scream as if they are being killed or dying. It’s just so haunting and upsetting. Then there’s the scene where Laura tries to get the ghosts to appear to her. She virtually turns back time as she turns the house back into the orphanage it once was and sits at the dinner table waiting for them before decided to actually try to summon them. The camera keeps moving back and forth from her to the darkened rest of the room where you just know the ghosts are going to appear, and you both want them to appear because it’ll relieve the almost unbearable tension, but also don’t want them to do so because it’s just so damn scary.
Frankly I was almost climbing the walls by this point, though of course many of us differ in terms of what frightens us. The Blair Witch Project did nothing for me and my wife sat there waiting for The Shining to get frightening. I wonder if the way The Orphanage got me going the way it did was partly because I was so caught up in its story, especially its emotional side. I’ve avoided going into too much of the plot for this film because I don’t feel that enough people have seen it and it will work so much better when you can be surprised every now and again, and it’s possible that one day I’ll do another review of it when I go more into the storyline of what is in part a spooky variant on Peter Pan and analyse it a bit, but I will say that there’s so much tragedy it’s almost heartbreaking at times, so much so that a simple shot of six beds conveys such immense sadness. And as for the ending, it’s actually not as original as all that, but works so well because it’s the logical conclusion of the actions and emotions of Laura, and therefore makes a great deal of sense. What doesn’t make a great deal of sense is rather a lot of confusion as to which child is which in some scenes, plus this is another one of those films where dead bodies, even if they’ve been where they are for a very long time indeed, obviously don’t smell much. Plus there’s a rather silly bit where one character not only falls over and injures a leg on a sandy beach, but the wound then seems to change legs a few times, while I’m not sure if cinematographer Oscar Faura’s use of green in the climactic night time scenes entirely comes off….though in general the colour palette serves the film very well, tending to emphasise muted browns, beiges and blues but still managing to look very attractive.
O well, few films are perfect, and The Orphanage has so much that is worthy of praise, Belén Rueda’s quite astounding performance as the not always entirely sympathetic lead being one of them. It seems so deeply felt and contains one of the most convincing essaying of sudden grief I’ve ever seen on screen. Fernando Cayo as Carlos does extremely well too in what could almost be called the ‘idiot’ part , but his disbelieving of the possibility of supernatural things even if they’re almost happening in front of his eyes is made to be plausible and you even get to feel the character’s point of view. The music score by Fernando Velázquez does all the things it should do, enhancing both the ‘horror’ and the ‘emotional’ side of things. There’s expert use of sound too, with Bayona knowing that silence can be an effective tool too. Several times the sounds cuts off completely and it creates such a feeling of apprehension. I was pretty sure that The Orphanage would be good, but I didn’t expect it to be as thoroughly chilling, and also as much of an emotional rollercoaster, as it was. It’s a modern horror classic, and a really rich, fulfilling movie all round.