Spanish chiller evokes ghosts of grief

El Orfanato (The Orphanage): 105 minutes. Rated: MA. Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

El Orfanato (The Orhpanage)Be prepared to lose sleep. The Orphanage (El Orfanato in its home country, Spain) is a skillfully made spooky movie set in a cavernous seaside mansion. It concerns the glass-eyed ghosts of six children, guaranteed to give you the heebie-jeebies.

As if that wasn't creepy enough, it is the film's more tangible, human elements that might leave both mind and gut churning late into the night.

Laura (Rueda) returns to the orphanage of her childhood, accompanied by her husband, Carlos (Cayo) and their nine-year-old son, Simón (Príncep). They intend to reopen the orphanage, but matters both personal and supernatural cause bumps from the outset.

For one, the vivacious Simón is increasingly preoccupied with his imaginary friends, to the chagrin of his doting parents. Simón doesn't know that he is adopted, nor that he has an illness carrying a potentially early expiry date, and this secret puts additional strain on Laura and Carlos.

Then there's the orphanage's bleak, untold history to contend with, not to mention the ghosts that have stuck around to stir things up. When Simón disappears without a trace, Laura is convinced these otherworldly occupants are her key to finding him. As months roll by, this conviction becomes an obsession.

The Orphanage is a contemporary ghost story with its ghastly fingers trailing through a long and diverse history of scary tales, from Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher to films such as The Others, The Amityville Horror and even Friday the 13th.

It wears its influences proudly, more homage than plagiarism. Its use of the supernatural to provide an allegorical exploration of Laura's grief and guilt reflects the traditional function of ghosts in literature, and gives the story a distinctive, human element.

Frankly, The Orphanage is scary as hell. Prior to the Spanish film festival closing night screening, the director, via a tongue-in-cheek written statement, said he hoped his film would make the audience suffer. The tortures invoked by The Orphanage range from standard 'jump' moments to icy tension and pure gut-wrenching horror.

Filmmakers have long recognised the creepy-factor of ghoulish kiddies — think Village of the Damned or A Nightmare on Elm Street. El Orfanato harnesses this creepiness, underscores it with sympathy for the horrific way in which the children died, and augments it by emphasising the childishness of these ghosts. Theirs is a decidedly playful haunting — one of their games provides the film's most chilling scene.

It's entirely possible the ghosts are a figment of Laura's imagination, lending undue portent to otherwise innocuous goings on. If that's true, it speaks volumes about her mental state. Bayona revels in the ambiguity, although it must be said that if the ghosts are to be taken literally, elements of their back story are insufficiently explained.

Either way the film's supernatural elements are a red herring, distracting both Laura and the audience from the awful — and awfully mundane — reality of Simón's fate.

Post script: this is a highly effective but imperfect film. It saves its greatest imperfection until last. Unwilling to leave his audience with the harrowing outcome of the film's climactic movement, Bayona instead tacks on an uplifting final note. The film's ending is discordant and suggests dubious means for finding peace amid grief.

The Orphanage official website

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction. Email Tim


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Spanish horror film, El Orfanato, The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona, Belén Rueda



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