It’s easy to forget how inherently melancholic the concept of ghosts are. Trapped souls forced to inhabit the scenes of their demise, seemingly for all eternity. Take away the notion of horrific imagery and what’s left is surely enough to break the hearts of even the coldest of audience members. Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, A Monster Calls) and writer Sergio G. Sánchez know this, and finely craft The Orphanage as the tightest, most delirium-inducing whirlwind of emotion wrapped-in-a-ghost-story that has graced cinema in a long, long time.
“I won’t grow old. I’m not going to grow up” – Simón.
After purchasing her childhood adoption home with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), Laura (Belén Rueda) decides to turn the unused space into a home for disabled children with her and Carlos running the show. However, just as the handful of children are about to arrive at their new home, their adopted seven-year-old son Simón (Roger Príncep) begins to further his fascination with imaginary friends. In fact, he very quickly imagines more – including one named Tomás who always wears a sack mask over his head. When the children start to arrive, Simón disappears,nowhere to be found, and Laura and Carlos are plunged into months of panic, paranoia and hauntings throughout their home – all relating to his disappearance.
The Orphanage is far from a traditional horror film. It’s much more concerned with the nuances of characters and their flaws rather than scaring the audience (though what is there to scare works well). The introduction of the mysterious ‘Tomás’ in the caves by the house would be the jumping-off point of dozens of lesser films; his iconography with the sack mask alone is enough to shift movie tickets and fill jump scares for an entire franchise. But instead, Bayona plays the film’s first act as joyful. The sun shines brightly; the orphanage itself, another location ripe for horror tropes, is beautiful and grandiose… it’s a home already, ready to welcome more family members. The film uses this element for great contrast over the course of the film. As soon as Simón disappears it’s as if a weight has been piled onto the characters. Laura and Carlos’ marriage strains under the pressure of them arguing over who is to blame.
It’s a mystery that drives the narrative forward six months too. Sánchez’s screenplay dupes us with multiple red herrings that enhance the orphanage’s backstory and add layers to the characters; nothing is wasted here. For example the mysterious ex-employee of the company Benigna Escobeda is offered up as a potential lead to Simón’s whereabouts, though those hopes are supremely shattered thanks to a swift reminder of the ‘horror’ aspect of the film. When we realise she is actually Tomás’ mother looking to cover up her actions of murdering Laura’s childhood-friends after they accidentally caused her son to drown in the caves, it feels as though each piece of the puzzle is falling into place.
Of course Bayona makes full use of the location. His directorial stylings of emotional, shallow-focus closeups and warping, long camera movements strengthen the emotional despair of the characters as well as the neverending space of the orphanage. One particular highlight is a game Tomás insists on playing, where he hides previous artefacts and guides Laura to new realisations by swapping out items with ones from other hidden spaces. These games, alongside ‘1,2,3…knock on the wall!’ are some of the strongest genre moments. Especially during the latter half of the film when Laura decides to pursue her lost son alone, Bayona knows how to drain every last drop of tension from a children’s game through the use of restrained camerawork and utter silence. Though that’s not to say it isn’t without a majestic score. Composer Fernando Velázquez swells with emotional strings more suited to a drama or family-feature through the film, drawing in familiar motifs and orchestral sadness that hounds when Laura’s in despair. It’s an epic display of music not commonly associated with the horror genre once again but manages to make itself a powerful tool.
In order to work as a film Laura needs to be up against something, and whilst Benigna is suitably cut from proceedings it’s the mysterious Tomás that embodies the mystery. He’s present the day of Simón’s disappearance, both in the house and at the caves when Laura is desperate to find him. That night, when Laura hears banging and a crash from within the walls she’s convinced it’s Tomás again. His behaviour is erratic… because he’s still a child. Due to a deformity, Tomás was kept away from the other orphans in a basement room. The fact that he regularly appears elsewhere is due to his need for a connection. It doesn’t matter that one minute he’s guiding Laura to more answers and the next he’s locking her in the bathroom- children are fickle and surprising, and young ones make mistakes. They’re allowed to. Even when the film’s resolution comes around, it’s not addressed whether Simón was enticed by Tomás to his secret room beneath the stairs. It’s not fair to assume it was done maliciously, the same way it isn’t fair to condemn the orphans for their part in Tomás’ demise. It’s just human error.
Halfway through the film The Orphanage entices horror aficionados with a scene involving a psychic medium – Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) – surveying the house. The film’s unknown time period limits them to CCTV videos and microphones to watch Aurora uncover the lost children. They scream in pain and cry out for help as Laura and a disbelieving Carlos watch, and it’s difficult not to feel uncomfortable. In her anger Benigna poisoned the rest of the children after Laura was adopted, forcing them to remain in a perpetual state of fear and pain. Both Aurora and Laura cry out for them, their suffering another product of anger devised from the accidental actions of children.
“Seeing is not believing. It is the other way round” – Aurora.
Deep down The Orphanage knows what audiences, and parents in particular, are truly afraid of: children being mistreated or left without hope, the potential of a son or daughter wanting to leave, and not being able to help when we’re their only chance. It uses these fears not to scare us but strengthen its story – the scares are the sole property of Bayona and Sánchez. It’s rare to think that there’s nobody to blame in a horror film such as this, and that for all the pain and suffering The Orphanage encompasses it’s the kind actions that shine through to the end credits. It’s a compassionate fantasy version of what we’d want ghosts to truly be like, and it’s a film that hasn’t lost a single ounce of power since its initial release.