Me and The Orphanage… we’ve had an interesting ride together. It’s not often a movie takes me on a rollercoaster of opposite emotions and thoughts, but this horror movie managed to do it. I originally saw it back in January when it was in limited release in theaters. I plopped myself down one weeknight because of the positive press and cheap ticket prices. While I started warming up to the movie, part of the way through I began getting more and more disenfranchised and annoyed by the movie’s message. Then the climax happened and it completely changed my opinion. What kind of movie can DO that to me?
The movie starts with the most ridiculously idyllic depiction of an orphanage ever. Laura, an orphan child, is playing some sort of Spanish variation of “Red Light, Green Light” with the other orphans while the headmistress informs the audience that Laura is about to be adopted. Fast-forward a few decades later and Laura is a grown-up woman who’s just moved into the same orphanage she grew up in, with her doctor husband and her son Simón in tow. The plan is to turn it into a home for special needs children. As they’re readying the house, the audience finds out that Simón has lots of imaginary friends, and has to take a mysterious medication every day. Laura takes him down to the beach one afternoon and lets him explore the world’s creepiest cave, a giant gaping wound in the earth that’s situated on the shore. Simón seems to find someone in the cave and when Laura comes after him, he says he met a new friend, Tomás, and he leaves a trail of seashells back to the shore for him.
As if the tension weren’t building enough already, a mysterious old woman shows up seeming to know quite a bit about Simón’s past and sneaks around the premises at night for an unknown reason. The seashells Simón left for Tomás show up at the front door in a neat pile. Simón shares with Laura a game that Tomás and his friends (who “can’t grow up”) showed him where you leave a trail of clues that lead to a stolen treasure of yours. As this is happening, Simón’s behavior seems to get more and more erratic, and he begins to lash out at his parents, especially Laura. Right before the party they plan on having to welcome the children, they get into a big fight and Laura leaves him in his room in order to greet everyone. Later on, she can’t seem to find him, but finds a strange little boy that has a sack over his head and gives bestial growls. After a confrontation between the two, Laura desperately tries to find her son, only to find that Simón has gone completely missing.
It sounds like a pretty standard horror story, and I suppose if you want to look at it that way, it is. It’s nothing you probably haven’t seen in films like The Others, The Sixth Sense or even Silent Hill. But it’s not about how original your material is, it’s what you do with it. And The Orphanage does a surprising amount. Although the story is really about what happened to Laura’s child, they also manage to tie in a plot relating to the fate of the children Laura left at the orphanage when she was adopted. There’s very little wasted in the plot in regards to red herrings or dropped plot lines. It actually manages to come up with a satisfying twist at the end that doesn’t resort to making crazy shit up like other horror movies seem to. (High Tension, I’m looking at you.) And for a horror movie it’s able to whip up its share of scares and gross-outs, including a personal non-favorite: nail-ripping. Ewww.
And what I’m going to talk about next sort of relates to the twist. Now, this is pretty much a ghost movie. The main mysteries center around the existence of ghosts and the possible menace they present to Laura and her family. I don’t believe in ghosts. In fact, there’s only a few things that will make me lose respect for people faster than hearing “I believe in ghosts.” I think ghosts are a bunch of superstitious malarkey with no substantiation in science or fact. It’s convenient that they’re usually invisible and imperceptible, isn’t it? Show me a ghost. In fact, I dare a ghost to haunt me. Ghost movies usually piss me off because they sort of hinge on the characters believing in the damn things and proceeding to do stupid as hell stuff.
This movie started out on similar ground and had me looking at it condescendingly, even though I could tell the craftsmanship was great. Laura COMPLETELY believes that ghosts are responsible for kidnapping her son. And she’s willing to go to any ridiculous length to explore that option. Instead of continuing to trust in the police, she starts hanging out at paranormal conferences and letting a fucking ghost hunter (played by Geraldine Chaplin) poke around the orphanage. I was rolling my eyes so hard at her by the end because of how much she had deluded herself into believing all this ghost horseshit and how the movie was expecting us to go along with the ride. (Serves me right for watching a ghost movie, right?)
But then something happens by the end that completely surprised me that the movie had this much finesse to pull it off. It manages to find a way to satisfy everyone, no matter their belief in silly transparent chain-rattlers. It has its cake and eats it too, and it didn’t end up bothering me one bit. That’s a rare thing, my friends. Even rarer that a horror movie can evoke actual TEARS from me at the end, which The Orphanage also managed to do. Is it slightly emotionally manipulative? Perhaps. But I think the movie earned the right to jerk a few tears from me.
Belén Rueda plays Laura, and the majority of the movie falls onto her shoulders. I’m a bit torn on how to critique her acting because although she plays a good “mother who desperately wants to find her son,” she’s got a pretty flat chemistry with the actual child. She seems sort of wooden whenever they’re together and just doesn’t seem like she enjoys his company. Which makes the fact that her character is planning to have a whole house full of children a little ridiculous. Walk before you run, sister. The kid playing Simón is your typical child actor: not that good. Geraldine Chaplin does a nice job, but her role in the movie feels a bit small and brief. Laura’s husband is fairly inconsequential. Name the last time a man mattered in a horror movie. (Sit down, Sean Bean.) This isn’t a movie to watch for its amazing acting, for sure.
From a technical standpoint, though, it’s superb. The cinematography is great, with almost every shot framed in some striking or creepy way. And the locations they’re shooting at are perfect. The beach with the cave just naturally looks like a place that no one in their right mind would want to go into. And the orphanage is an austere, sprawling, creeky mansion with tons of nooks and crannies. The sound is really key, too, and I recommend seeing it on a good home theater system in order to get the maximum effect from the sound effects. The music’s pretty versatile, able to swing from Simón’s playful treasure hunting game to creepy tension without feeling schizophrenic or out of place.
The Orphanage deals a lot with Laura returning to the place where she grew up and coping with the memories and spirits of her past, albeit in a rather literal fashion. It sort of struck me how powerful a feeling that can be. A few years ago, I paid a brief visit to the elementary school that I went to for my entire childhood. It’s like the place had some sort of eerie power over me. I’d spent so much of my life there that it’s hard not to think of a part of myself residing there. I sort of felt… reunited? Could the part of myself I sense as being there be likened to a ghost? I’m no expert of the paranormal (oxymoron, snerk), but maybe so. If so, then that’s a ghost that I believe in. The fact that this movie can evoke such a delicate, inexplicable reaction and emotion speaks to its merit. Even if you have some sort of subtitle phobia, sit your ass in front of this movie and maybe, if you play along, it’ll reunite you with your past self.