It’s hard to judge horror films, as their replay value necessarily diminishes after the first viewing. If the film’s primary goal is to make you jump, to give you chills at the things going bump in the night, how much could possibly be left once you’ve seen the movie once over already? To create a great horror film, it must take more than throwing things suddenly into a scene in order to make the audience jump, more than creepy music and exaggerated close-ups to keep the audience guessing what might be just out of view. Although a lot of The Orphanage does simply recount the tropes of horror films past, it maintains its own identity throughout, making it ultimately more than an homage or rip-off.
The thing that struck me most about the film, what seems unusual for its type, is how seriously it addresses the events which unfold within. What I mean is that it draws them out, it does not shy away from the horrific. There is a vehicular accident partway through the movie that could just as easily have been explained by the reaction shots of those affected by it – in fact, there’s one shot in particular where a doctor wipes blood off of his face, exasperated at his inability to save the accident’s victim. That alone would have sufficed, but the camera cuts to show the gruesome aftermath of the event. The camera peers down nearly clinically, not to exploit the moment but instead simply to make sure that it remains indelibly etched in the viewer’s mind.
There are several other instances like this throughout the film which gave me a similar shock. The movie does travel some well-worn paths, I suppose. The A.V. Club’s review wastes no time making comparisons to The Others, Poltergeist, and, ahem, Pan’s Labyrinth. They’re well-worn, in the sense that this movie is about a woman in a large house besieged by creepy, ghostly children. Laura (Belén Rueda) has purchased the abandoned orphanage where she spent her childhood with the intention of fixing it up and re-opening it to take care of a new set of children. Her own son, however, has found some imaginary friends to play with… but are they really in his imagination? The floorboards are always creaking, doors opening and closing themselves, clanging sounds emanating from any place in which something might clang. It becomes unsettling. Even more so when Laura’s son mysteriously vanishes and remains missing for more than nine months.
This is one of the other things which struck me as singular. Where many other films might take this set-up and have the frenzy build immediately, leading the worried parents down a path of otherworldly exploration until they find their child hidden in some frightening maze of ghostly torment, The Orphanage lets the loss of the child simmer for nine months. Laura maintains that her son is alive, that his invisible friends have somehow hidden him yet kept him safe all this time. Her dedication to this idea is depressingly futile. Laura’s husband Carlos is haunted, not by the ghosts which scratch along the walls, break windows, and show up in flashes at the end of hallways – his demons are his wife’s delusions, her tireless declarations that they will find their boy. He tries bringing her to a bereavement support group, to allow her to discuss the loss with others who have felt a similar pain. They talk about having seen their loved ones long after they had passed away, but Laura is unmoved. “You don’t understand,” she tells them matter-of-factly.
The reference to Pan’s Labyrinth is hardly surprising, given the fact that Guillermo Del Toro – the director of that film – produced this one, but there is an element of whimsy that appears repeatedly here. In the early part of the movie, the couple’s son is around and endlessly adorable. “Can I wake up now?” he asks, lying in bed with his sleeping mother. They play a game with the boy’s invisible friends, following a series of clues all around the house in a delightful rush. And though it seemed extremely out of place, to me, there are a few scenes which have a jubilant, bouncy musical accompaniment with them – one specific moment, where a cloaked stranger steals away into the night, has an almost comical sound with it. I think I understand the idea behind it, though, disguising the truth of the matter at hand – which, out of context, would be incredibly depressing – with mysteries and ghost stories and kooky secondary characters.
Not to say that this all works. There’s a whole back-story involved with Laura and the orphanage which comes into play later on in the film in bizarre ways, none of which are very adequately explained. The existence of her son’s friend Thomas is given credence in a lame bit of exposition, but it never makes any sense. There’s a huge plot point about the fact that there are six children in all which have befriended Laura’s son – yet only one bears any major importance; the existence of the others feels superfluous to the story altogether.
Those few flaws aside, sometimes glaring as they may be, the movie certainly is effective on a first viewing. I wish I had seen it in the dark, because I’m sure I would have had trouble sleeping afterward. There are ideas in the movie, deliberate choices such as that to revert to realism at the last moment, which are interesting and help prevent The Orphanage from being little more than a re-hash of previous scares. Perhaps this could have been a little bit more clear, though? It’s difficult to say. There are reasons that the movie works well for showing us things from Laura’s perspective, but imagine how it might have looked from Carlos’ view. There’s another dramatic angle which is merely hinted at – is that hinting enough? Regardless, there are layers to this film, more than just a series of flashbacks showing, “Oh, it all makes sense, so he was the killer the entire time!” The layers here are about the psychological state of each of the characters.
That is what makes this more than a typical horror movie. The scares simply supplement the drama.