The ghost story is such an ancient form of storytelling that one might have expected it to wither away and die like a dried up flower laid upon a dusty tombstone, yet it continues to live on – in both literature and film – like some kind of mournful banshee, refusing to rest quietly in its grave. How is it that a genre whose basic machinery was codified over a century ago – before the birth of modern cinema – can continue to engender new and terrifying movie-going experiences? The secret – as illustrated in the new Spanish-language film THE ORPHANGE – is that the film must be about something other than simply a haunting. Create a character and/or a situation that invokes dark and dismal thoughts, and then use the supernatural devices as externalizations of the character’s anguished mental state; the old, familiar cliches can still send a shiver down the spine when they serve a solid, dramatic purpose. In short, the way to craft a modern ghost story is to craft an interesting story with a ghost (or at least the possibility of one) included.
The screenplay for THE ORPHANAGE offers us the tale of Laura (Belen Rueda), a thirty-seven year-old woman who returns, along with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted son Simon (Roger Princip), to the orphanage where she grew up, with the intent to convert it into a home for children with special needs. Simon, we soon learn, is a lonely, sick little boy (HIV positive), with a pair of imaginary playmates. His adoptive parents (who have not revealed that he is adopted) hope he will abandon his imaginary friends when the house opens for business, providing real playmates; however, they are disturbed when Simon insists he has met a new friend, named Tomas, in a small grotto formed of rocks that are exposed during the low tide of the nearby beach.
Laura is further disturbed when an old woman named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) shows up, claiming to be a social worker – and then shows up again, lurking in a storage shed near the main house. Soon, Simon insists that there are more invisible friends lurking on the premises, and he takes his mother along for a “game” which consists of following a series of clues left by those friends. Laura is upset when the trail leads to papers (left by Benigna) that reveal the truth about Simon’s adoption, but it turns out that Simon already knows the truth – which he insists he learned from Tomas. Still upset, Laura later refuses to follow Simon when he claims to have found Tomas’ hidden home. During the opening celebration for the new home (a masquerade party), Laura is attacked by an angry boy in a sack-like mask (is it Simon – or Tomas?) who locks her in a bathroom. When she gets out, Simon is missing. Has he been kidnapped by Benigna (who turns out not to be what she claimed), or has he gone to live with his invisible friend Tomas?
The remainder of the story charts Laura’s attempts to discover the truth about what happened to Simon. The film plays out like a combination of mystery and melodrama: while the police search for clues, Laura and Carlos struggle to come to terms with the loss of Simon. After six months, Carlos is ready to give up and move on (the fact that Simon needed daily medicine indicates that he is probably long dead), but Laura refuses to let go, eventually calling in a team of psychic investigators, lead by a medium named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin).
The appeal of the film resides mostly in Rueda’s portrait of Laura, a character who commands audience empathy by virtue of her perseverance and, ultimately, willingness for self-sacrifice. Cayo is sympathetic and understanding – up to a point – as Carlos; Benigna is enigmatic and mysterious as Benigna; and Chaplin is alternately spooky and inspiring as Aurora. But in the end, this is a showcase for Rueda. It is impossible not to be engrossed when she is on screen, and the triumph of her performance is that she portrays Laura’s tenacity in such a way that we admire her resolve even while we suspect it is based on a neurotic unwillingness to face the awful truth that her husband has reluctantly accepted.
Rueda is aided in this endeavor by Sergio Sanchez’s clever screenplay, which nimbly traverses the familiar ambiguous territory (de rigeur since Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) that leaves us wondering whether Simon’s ghostly playmates exist in reality or only in Laura’s mind. The script drops lots of clues and drags one or two red herrings across the track: we suspect that Benigna may have kidnapped Simon, but when her true agenda is revealed, it answers some questions while leaving others open (such as why she pretended to be a social worker and why she left the papers revealing the truth about Simon’s adoption). In the best tradition of supernatural tales, we learn enough to make sense of the plot, but details like these remain tantalizingly vague – a source of intriguing speculation for after the credits have rolled.
Jaun Antonio Bayona directs the proceedings with conviction, perfectly blending the dramatic elements with the supernatural horror to create a film that feels seamless and convincing, not a jumbled patchwork of different genres. (THE ORPHANAGE feels more like a synthetic whole than last year’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, whose writer-director, Guillermo Del Toro, here serves as executive producer.)
In the manner of M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE, Bayona manages to create a convincing cinematic reality (as opposed to the hip “it’s only a movie” attitude of most horror films) into which the intrusion of the supernatural resonates with the impact of a silent ultra-sonic boom whose shockwaves shatter delicate crystal while remaining uncannily unheard by our ears. Even when nothing tangible is happening on screen, Bayona maintains the atmosphere of dread throughout: the aprehension of what might have happened to Simon, the uneasy sense of something unseen lurking in the shadows.
Bayona does not shy away from a couple of visceral moments. The attack on Laura by Tomas/Simon includes bloody fingers smashed in a door, and there is a later shocking moment involving an auto accident and its victim, which plays out like a joke upon audience expectations and directorial discretion: Carlos, who is a doctor, covers the victim’s damaged face before we can get a glimpse of it – but then the victim lurches back to life, revealing the broken jaw that we did not expect to see in a subtle ghost story.
These brief, unsettling eruptions of violence keep the audience off-balance, never sure what to expect, but the truly chilling horror takes a different and far more subtle form, best exemplified when Laura tries to evoke the ghosts of the Orphanage by recreating her past activities there, including a childhood game in which she turns her back, knocks on wood, and waits for Simon’s invisible playmates to reveal themselves. Brilliantly captured in a single take with a hand-held camera swinging back and forth from Laura to the door where she expects the ghost to appear, this scene presents one of those rare moments wherein you actually believe your are seeing a ghost, not a Hollywood special effect designed to represent a ghost. It’s a virtuoso moment where technique is not only impressive but – far more important – effective.
So, THE ORPHANAGE is a good ghost story, but is it a great one? In its sincere effort to build steadily toward its climax, the pacing does sometimes lag; although puctuated by some nice scares (including a well-staged “seance”), horror-hungry viewers may find themselves eagerly anticipating shocks that are in no hurry to be served up immediately. Also, as intriguing as the film’s mystery is, it is not clear that all the continuity details completely add up, and the result is not quite as rich as the established genre classics (such as as 1961’s THE INNOCENTS) to whose exalted status this film clearly aspires. THE ORPHANAGE definitely works on its own terms; we’ll just have to wait and see whether it has the staying power of a genuine classic.
With its gloom-laden sense of doom, balanced by an apparent belief in an afterlife, it would have been easy for THE ORPHANAGE to fall apart at its conclusion, copping out with a “spiritually uplifting” happy ending or, even worse, going for the cheap cynicism of something like THE MIST. Amazingly, THE ORPHANAGE manages to balance both elements without feeling at all like a compromise. The narrative reaches a satisfying conclusion that mixes complex emotional responses a la Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. The ending also recalls the sometimes enigmatic endings of Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci (e.g., the latter’s HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), in which characters cross the dividing line between this world and the next and find themselves in a new reality, which may be the afterlife or may be another dimension in time. The difference is that, whereas Fulci was often unsatisfying (was he making a profound metaphysical statement, or was he simply incapable of crafting an ending that made sense?), Bayona and Sanchez hit just the right emotional chords, creating a sad, sweet coda that will resonate inside your heart long after you have left the theatre.
THE ORPHANAGE (El Orfanato, 2007). Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Written by Sergio G. Sanchez. Cast: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Andres Gertrudix, Edgar Vivar, Oscar Casas, Nereua Renau, Georgina Avellaneda, Carla Cordillo Alicia, Alejandro Campos, Carmen Lopez, Oscar Lara, Geraldine Chaplin.
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