Monday, June 23, 2008

The Orphanage

The Orphanage (El Orfanato, 2007) uses virtually no special effects and instead relies on old tried and true devices to provoke suspense. The film is about a couple who move into an abandoned orphanage with their adopted seven-year old son. The house is large and looming, and it sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. An abandoned lighthouse sits nearby. A mysterious entrance leads into a dark cave. The boy plays with friends only he can see. And, oh, yes, his adoptive mother grew up in the orphanage. When she lets her son play for a few minutes in the cave, he doesn't come back out. She goes into find him and sees him talking to someone whom she cannot see—someone whom he invites to come live with them in the house. The film develops from there. Antonio Bayona directed this film, which was produced by Guillermo del Toro, writer and director of Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

The Orphanage reminded me of films like The Others (2001), The Changeling (1980), the The Haunting (1963, based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House), and Henry James' novel The Turn of the Screw, works of psychological interest that may be about supernatural happenings or may be about what characters imagine. The primary character in The Orphanage is the mother, who becomes obsessed with finding her son after he mysteriously disappears. Although what happens in this film is fairly predictable, the film artfully satisfies the various elements of the formula it follows. Even so, interesting embellishments and touches bring something new to the experience: the J. M. Barrie play Peter Pan has a role, and an ominous old woman with a shovel and a baby carriage makes several appearances. Geraldine Chaplain briefly portrays a medium employed to uncover secrets about the house and the boy's disappearance.

A number of shots down a long, empty hallway reminded me of Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Kubrick seems an influence here, especially as we pause outside a door to a room pungent with menace, or as we see shadowy figures at the end of a hall.

There are a number of serious holes in this film, and if you hold it up to too closely to the standards of logic and reality the light will begin to shine through. The mother in particular behaves in an increasingly erratic way, months after her son's disappearance. Something she does at the end of the film seems less an act of character than an act intended to honor the formula. She is excessively protective of her son, and therefore it doesn't quite make sense when she allows him to explore an abandoned cave. From the very beginning she never hesitates to investigate strange noises or to enter dark, ominous rooms and tool sheds. Yet isn't that foolhardiness the requirement of these films?—if we don't enter those rooms, the great horror remains hidden. The important point here is that The Orphanage succeeds in being the kind of film it is. Not only did the hair on my scalp and arms continually stand up in fear, but I actually got a headache from the suspense.

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