The Orphanage (2007) J. A. Bayona
As an adult Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to the orphanage where she grew up. She brings along her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) who is a doctor and their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) who has HIV, although he doesn’t know that yet. Early in the film though he discovers both secrets about himself and a little boy that was already lonely and withdrawn becomes even more detached from reality and content to hang out with his imaginary friends.
Laura and Carlos meanwhile want to turn the Orphanage into a boarding school for disabled children but that plan seems unlikely when, at the grand opening party for the school, Simon disappears. The rest of the film is concerned with finding Simon, finding out what happened to him and the other children at the orphanage and what is going to happen to Laura and Carlos now.
The Orphanage is chock to the brim with creaky old horror clichés you’ve seen a million times. Creepy children, masked silent killers, mysterious old ladies, psychics and huge old empty houses. But these are all clichés for a reason. They scare us. And The Orphanage deploys these tired old tricks with a wit and sophistication that resurrects them and makes most of them work again.
It also brings some new cards to the table, mostly in that Bayona understands a key thing about good horror, it isn’t what’s there, or even what isn’t there that is scary, but what might be there. The Orphanage is very good at playing the suggestion game, hinting that something may be there without explicitly revealing it and letting the audience’s imagination fill in the rest.
In particular this film loves doors. The Orphanage, both the film and the titular building, is chock full of doors, opening slowly or closing suddenly, doors behind which could be anything but you’ll never know until you open them. The Orphanage is also filled with shots framed in such a way as to leave large parts of the screen visible but not clear. Characters are forced into the sides of the frame so the focus is on a door, a cave, some curtains or any object that could be concealing something unsettling. The effect is off putting as the audience assumes the focus of the shot to be the important part of the shot and so we’re constantly expecting something to happen.
Yet almost always, nothing does.
Bayona’s other good trick is turning the camera into a malevolent spirit. In a few key scenes Bayona moves the camera like a person moves their head, bobbing up and down slightly and turning to look at different objects in the room. Whereas normally the camera cuts or zooms to look at important objects in a setting here the camera gets up and walks towards it. The effect is to create the impression that the camera is watching Laura; that it is some kind of force with personality and consciousness. In particular the scene of Laura playing some Spanish version of “What’s the time Mr Wolf” with ghosts is terrifying not because of the ghosts but purely because of how the camera takes in the scene.
So The Orphanage does some old tricks well and in a genre as full of crap as horror can be that is enough for me to recommend giving this flick a watch.
But The Orphanage also got me thinking, how important to the effectiveness of the horror is the possibility that what we’re watching might be real?
That might sound like a stupid question. This film has ghosts in it, ghosts aren’t real and neither are monsters, vampires or serial killers that invade your dreams. Surely reality is unimportant for a horror film?
But The Orphanage is very cleverly constructed so that whilst it unequivocally has ghosts in it as far as what the audience sees, there may not be any ghosts within the reality of the film’s world. Laura is the only character who ever sees a ghost, she doesn’t see one until she suffers the traumatic loss of her son* and every time she sees a ghost their appearance is of someone whose facial features she was recently given in a more innocent context. Everything ghostly in this film could quite easily be in Laura’s head. This is a woman who just lost her son so the idea that she’s having some kind of breakdown and seeing hallucinations is not only likely but it makes considerably more sense than the supernatural explanation.
Crucially nothing in the plot of The Orphanage requires ghosts. Everything, even Simon’s disappearance, has a perfectly natural explanation.
And this got me thinking that many of my favourite Horror films, and certainly the ones that scare me the most effectively, also offer the possibility that nothing supernatural occurred. At least for the first half of the film anyway.
The Exorcist plays its hand pretty clearly towards the end but for most of the film the idea that Reagan’s suffering is purely mental illness is entirely logical and no less horrifying because of it. The Descent, one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, has no supernatural elements for more than half its running time but the tension is built around a very real fear of being lost, being stuck and having nobody who can rescue you. The American version of The Ring is put together like a detective story with the main character following logical clues until at the end logic ceases to have any meaning in their world. The Haunting (the original), Nightmare on Elm Street (and especially a new nightmare), Don’t Look Now, Suspiria; some of the most unsettling and frightening films play with the barriers between reality and madness.
This blurring of reality and madness evokes the uncanny. The uncanny is a Fruedian concept inextricably tied up in any critical reading of fantasy and horror. At its simplest it can be said that it is an instance where something can be both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. The usual example given is that of a doll, the image of a human and yet at the same time not a human and so possessed of an uncanny quality. If you’ve heard the term the uncanny valley, referring to how CGI representations of humans seem unsettling whereas more stylised animated characters do not, then it is basically the same idea.
Analysis of the uncanny tends to focus on uncanny objects; dolls, doppelgangers, doubles and other things not beginning with d. However, I wonder if it might also apply to the fictional reality of the text.
If a text posits itself to be real or at least a reflection of the real world but somehow a reflection that is wrong then it becomes a double of reality as we experience it but possessed of an uncanny quality. And that is very unsettling.
Creating this sense of our world but with something wrong is harder than it sounds. You can’t simply say this is our world, but with ghosts, that’s what makes it ‘wrong’ because our world doesn’t have ghosts in it. The experience might be different for someone who believes in the supernatural but as a staunch sceptic and rationalist myself the moment a text goes, btw this is all ghosts, it marks itself out as another world, a fictional one. It emphasises the point that what it is depicting could never happen to me and that creates a barrier between me and the experience of the protagonist, a sort of fictional safety net protecting me from the horror.
No, the wrongness has to be implied more subtly and the film has to present it as an option that could still happen in our reality. The events of The Orphanage could happen in the real world, we could lose a child, we could be driven mad by the experience, etc. But they also have the shape of something much weirder. In fact that shape seems to work better than the rational explanations. Keeping the possibility of rationality alive means the fictional safety net never gets deployed, it means that the fictional world possess a sense of the uncanny and it means that everything I am watching probably won’t, but does have the potential to, happen to me.
Sometimes I lay awake at night and imagine my bedroom door opening and something horrible being revealed standing in the doorway. It’s not something I lose much sleep over, it’s a fear I can rationalise away. I lock my doors, I’ve gone to sleep every night for 28 years and a murderer hasn’t been in my doorway, the odds are I’m safe.
But, still, there could be something there.
It is this fear that The Orphanage most acutely invokes for me.
*People who have seen the film at this point will be pointing out that no, she totally sees a ghost before Simon dies. Tomas, the film’s main spectre, shows up at the party and pushes Laura into the bath before Simon disappears. Except, it might not be Tomas. Tomas is distinguished by his sackcloth facemask but at the end of the film when she finally finds Simon he is also wearing Tomas’ facemask. The little boy who pushed her into the bath could easily be Simon wearing Tomas’ mask.