Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.
Last year, Chip Lary and I traded a list of 12 films for each other just as we did this year. One of the wild cards I picked for him in 2015 was The Orphanage (El Orfanato). I was nervous about the selection even though I genuinely love this movie because Chip wasn’t a horror guy. He wasn’t a fan of blood and gore, and while there’s only a touch of that here, this is clearly a film in the horror genre. As it happened, it was the only movie he gave five stars to from my list last year, and Chip didn’t hand out a lot of five-star reviews. I was genuinely pleased that he liked it as much as he did—it validated the choice and validated what I saw in the film.
The Orphanage, if it has a weak point, ticks all of the boxes in terms of horror movie clichés. There’s a big, spooky, old house that used to be an orphanage (hence the title). There are things that happen in the house that defy explanation. We have a child who has invisible friends who may be real and may not be real. There are paranormal investigators as in Poltergeist. There are also ghost children who are absolutely terrifying.
We start at the orphanage in question. As the film begins, we see a group of children playing outside the orphanage. One of the children, Laura, is adopted, and we move forward in time to the film’s present. Now an adult, Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have purchased the old orphanage with the hopes of opening it up to a small facility for children. Their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) does not know he’s adopted and does not know that he is HIV positive. Simon is a bright child, but seems lonely. He has a couple of imaginary friends to play with. Laura and Carlos are hoping that by bringing in more children, that Simon will develop some friendships and lose his imaginary ones.
Shortly after the family moves into the building, Laura is visited by Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), an old woman who claims to be a social worker. Benigna asks a few uncomfortable questions and leaves. The next day, Laura and Simon play a treasure hunt game that he says has been created by a new invisible friend named Tomas. His friends take something from him, something he prizes greatly, and leaves a series of clues that will eventually lead him to his prize. According to Simon, if he finds his missing treasure, he gets to make a wish. He does find his treasure in this case—in the kitchen, inside a locked drawer that contains his medical records. He also reveals at this time that he is aware of his illness and that he has been adopted even though no one has told him.
Laura and Carlos host a party to bring in new children to the home. At the party, Simon disappears. Laura sees movement in the house and finds a small child about Simon’s size wearing a burlap sack with a face painted on it over his head. She naturally assumes this is Simon, but the child manages to lock her in the bathroom. When she is finally rescued, Simon has disappeared for real.
This takes us only about half an hour into the film. I had forgotten just how quickly The Orphanage moves through setting up the real story here. The rest of the film concerns Laura’s search for the missing Simon, who she is convinced is still somewhere in the house or the area with her. A police psychologist named Pilar (Mabel Rivera) believes it possible that Simon has been kidnapped by a family member and starts her investigation. However, since this is a film that is clearly rooted in the horror genre, it’s a fair bet that we’re not going to end up with that sort of a resolution. We go deeper and deeper into the orphanage’s dark past aided significantly by a medium named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin). And, like the clues laid out by Simon’s invisible friends, we are slowly drawn along the threads of what has really happened both in the past and the present.
There is, of course, a great deal that I am leaving out here. That’s intentional. The Orphanage is not a film to have spoiled. It is a tale that is brilliantly told from start to finish, never treating its audience as if it can’t follow where the film is leading and never once talking down to the people watching. It assumes that its viewers are smart and thinking as the story unfolds.
What is better is that the work from J.A. Bayona, in his first feature-length film no less, shows a mastery of the horror form. Bayona uses his camera so well here, showing us enough in particular scenes to heighten tension and create a real sense of mystery and terror. Camera movements are used with precision and I can’t think of a place where he gives us a shot that doesn’t enhance the story being told.
So much of what makes The Orphanage work is the work of Belen Rueda in the role of Laura. She gives a performance that is many things at the same time, each part working beautifully to enhance and elevate every other. A part of her performance is necessarily manic; she is a woman who has lost her son, after all, and is willing to risk everything to get him back. She must also be almost supernaturally strong, even in the face of real terrors. Rueda is immediately sympathetic. She is both damaged and powerful, a woman who is desperate to reclaim her life with her son, but also desperate to understand everything that is happening to her and to her house.
What is most astonishing here, though, is that The Orphanage does something that many films aspire to accomplish but few actually manage: it’s terrifying in the best possible way. While there is a moment of gore in one scene, the film doesn’t rely on this. The single best scare in the film is done slowly, a reveal that takes its time and builds, piling fear on top of fear. The Orphanage manages to create a sense of real dread and real, genuine fear. There is a sense of truly touching the supernatural here, something I’ve experienced in films like The Others, The Devil’s Backbone, Stir of Echoes, and The Changeling and in very few other places.
If you want nightmares, stop watching with about 20 minutes to go. Get to the end, and you won’t be frightened any more, but you’ll still be haunted by one of the best horror films of the last decade. I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s the definition of must-see.
Why to watch The Orphanage: This is how you elevate the horror genre to art house.
Why not to watch: You’ll have nightmares if you don’t watch it all the way through.