FILM REVIEW: The Orphanage (2007)

The Orphanage (Spain/ Mexico, 2007)
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Geraldine Chaplin

Mainstream horror in the early-21st century has become defined by inept remakes, unnecessary reboots, and an uncreative obsession with physical mutilation embodied by so-called 'torture porn'. But even as the genre was taken to new lows with Roland Joffé's utterly vile Captivity, there were a couple of reasons to be cheerful about being a horror fan. The first was Pan's Labyrinth, and the second is The Orphanage.The Orphanage is the latest chapter in the reinvention of horror and fantasy cinema spearheaded by Guillermo Del Toro and his counterparts. Although ostensibly directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, Del Toro's fingerprints are all over this stylish and chilling ghost story which breathes new life into the haunted house sub-genre and the lost child motif. While not on a par with Pan's Labyrinth, it is a worthy companion to both Del Toro's own ghost story The Devil's Backbone and to the classic cinematic ghost stories of the early-1960s.Because of its ghost story heritage, The Orphanage is immediately comparable to The Innocents, The Haunting and most recently The Others, in its emphasis on the unknown and its use of suggestion and paranoia rather than shock and gore to bring out true terror in an audience. There are also connections with Don't Look Now and Dark Water in the central thread of a family attempting to cope with the loss of their child, and in the resulting encounters with the spirit world where the intentions of the spirits are decidedly ambiguous.Like these great ghost stories, The Orphanage is on one level about dealing with grief - or more specifically, the idea that being able to make contact with the world beyond this would be in some way cathartic. Just as Julie Christie feels at ease after the psychic sister tells her that her daughter is safe and happy, so Belen Rueda allows the medium into her home on the grounds that she might be able to make contact with Simon. And as with Don't Look Now, direct communication with the supernatural lifts the lid off Pandora's Box, compelling Rueda's character to pursue her son even at the cost of her own life.If you want proof of the strength of the production, both in its direction and its script, you need look no further than the sequence involving the medium, played in a good performance by Geraldine Chaplin. Utilising the same hand-held, infrared aesthetic of The Blair Witch Project or [Rec], this is the point where the film could fall apart and descend into nothing than scared faces intercut with loud bangs. But though the content of these scenes are naturally creepy, Bayona never allows the tone to get too hysterical. He keeps cutting back to the crew observing and recording the medium, keeping our focus on the reasons behind the set-piece rather than simply expecting us to be scared.The Orphanage utilises a number of different techniques which combine seamlessly to keep the shivers flowing down our spine. The most prominent technique is the use of suggestion, with the long shadowy corridors and creaky floorboards of the orphanage leading us to imagine we are seeing something we are not. The masks worn by the children at the welcome party also have a macabre, creepy quality, being reminiscent of the Venetian masks worn in the mansion scenes of Eyes Wide Shut. But there are also one or two scenes of physicalized horror to provide variety, including a shattered and disproportioned face worthy of Rob Bottin.But beyond scaring us purely as a technical exercise, The Orphanage uses its chilling atmosphere to explore other issues beyond that of grief and catharsis. On a broader level it explores the way in which life and death intertwine, merge and even co-exist within a given place. The orphanage is presented as both a physical entity rooted in the present and as a portal into the past - a vessel, if you like, for the souls of the children who lived there. The crime that was committed there all those years ago has caused their souls to remain there, like a dark mark on history, and they now seek company in the form of Laura to comfort them and explain their fate.There are big overtones of Peter Pan in The Orphanage which influence its view of the afterlife and the role of the central character. The children at the orphanage are like the Lost Boys, both in their status as orphans and the fact that they will never age. Simon's fondness for the book, games and his 'imaginary friends' stems from a desire to remain young forever; when teamed with the knowledge that he is dying, his insolent rejection of his parents becomes a yearning for something or somewhere where death is no longer feared.If the ghost children are the Lost Boys and Simon is one of the Darling children, Laura begins as the sceptical parent but ends up rediscovering her childhood self and taking on the role of Wendy. There is a through-line with Pan's Labyrinth here in the idea of a central female protagonist who has forgotten her true identity, and who must find her true self through a series of challenges. But The Orphanage puts its own spin on it, characterising Neverland as the afterlife and the physical act of death as the gateway to staying young forever.This emphasis on childhood and childlikeness slips over into the behaviour of the ghosts with regard to their human companions. In the earlier sections of the film, The Orphanage seems to side with The Haunting in portraying the supernatural as something inherently and inexplicably malevolent, as shown by Tomas slamming Laura's finger in the bathroom door and then locking her in. But as things move on the ghosts' nature becomes more clearly playful; like children, they do as they please because they do not know the consequences of their actions. Any perception of threat is less down to their intentions as our preconceptions about death and the afterlife.There is a further comparison with The Haunting in the question of whether the events which transpire at the orphanage have any form of rational explanation. In the final scene, where the source of the scraping sounds is revealed, we gain some kind of understanding as to where the boundary between the explicable and the inexplicable lies. But up until then The Orphanage is great at keeping us guessing, generating real suspense during the night sequences which build to a heart-breaking last ten minutes.The Orphanage is also visually beautiful. Oscar Faura, who most recently shot Julia's Eyes, captures the haunting quality of the orphanage through a careful selection of pale blues, faded browns and a meticulous choice of shadows. The film has a sumptuous quality to it which makes its harsher moments all the more frightening. The performances are also of a high quality, with Belen Rueda anchoring the film in a portrayal which combines panic, dignity, sorrow and despair while never seeming anything less than human.The Orphanage is a first-class ghost story which confirms horror's ability, in the right hands, to address profound and insightful issues in a manner which is not only immersive, but sensitive, touching and intensely memorable. Because of its strong resemblance to Del Toro's work, it's hard to say how much of its success lies with Bayona, or whether he will be able to achieve this level of results under his own steam. But in the meantime it should be celebrated for what it is, namely an intelligent, heart-breaking chiller which will stay with you for a very long time.

Verdict: A creepy and heart-breaking chiller


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