(dir. J.A. Bayona)
*First time viewing
Scare Factor: 3/5: Starling in both its mercy and punishing twist, The Orphanage is a crucial example of Spanish-language horror. While the emotional nature of motherhood is the central focus, Bayona delivers on the tension and genuine scares. The Orphanage may play like an independent drama for a good portion of its runtime, but it’s still a film that delivers a disfigured child ghost with a sack over his head. In other words, the elements of horror are definitely present.
A woman must confront the past when her son goes missing in the orphanage she grew up in.
It’s clear from the start that Bayona’s El Orfanato is heavily influenced by the early works of producer Guillermo Del Toro. The fairy tale-esque quality to the story and the lingering focus on space will be familiar to fans of De Toro’s work and productions. The film carries a strong modern gothic aesthetic, a result of Bayona and cinematographer Óscar Faura’s fascination with the winding halls and passages of the orphanage, and the rocky coastline where the story’s tragic beginnings are buried. Space within the film becomes just as important as the characters and the Spanish architecture and landscape which brings out the beauty and ugliness in them, and that’s before we even get to the ghosts.
The ghosts, orphans who were murdered decades ago, aren’t so much malevolent but confrontational, entities that force responsibility and truth on those in their presence. Yet our lead, Laura is established as nothing but responsible. Even after the disappearance of her son, Simón, it’s difficult to call her irresponsible. But therein lies the terror of The Orphanage, it’s a world like those aforementioned fairy tales that holds moral absolutes in the highest regard, and punishes even the briefest moments of weakness. To American sensibilities, the film seems unnecessarily cruel, particularly in its final moments because it’s not a blood moment of gore and torture, but an emotional cruelty that promises one thing before pulling back the curtain and delivering something else. Yes, Laura’s goodness is rewarded, but not without a gently heartbreaking conclusion that may leave some viewers feeling a bit mixed.