The golden age of horror: The Orphanage (2008)

Rob: Why not cut to the chase? I think The Orphanage is the best horror film of the past two decades. Maybe more. It has all the ingredients I personally love most in a horror movie including a haunted house, a disfigured child, and a deliciously gory close-up. Director Juan Antonio Bayona is clearly inspired by some of my personal favorites like Rosemary’s Baby and Poltergeist, probably the single most formative scary movie I saw in my impressionable youth.

I think this film is an absolute master-class in how to build tension and create fear. It’s a fascinating, intricate, and rewarding mystery. And it’s a deeply moving tragedy about a desperate mother and her lost, little boy. And it all starts with a childrens’ game.

After the jump, one, two, three, knock on the wall.

Rob: Kind of hard to believe this is a directorial debut, don’t you think, Chris?

Chris: It certainly is a very self-assured piece of filmmaking. This month we’ve seen how a good director in the horror genre can make us feel uneasy and keep layering in the spooky factor. Bayona finesses that really well throughout this movie. Without using any computer generated effects, by the halfway point here he has us ready to jump at almost any sudden movement. If there’s a such thing as karma, I hope Jan de Bont watched this movie and wept, because for what I assume is about a tenth of the budget, The Orphanage feels far more like the spiritual remake of The Haunting than that 1999 remake monstrosity.

Rob: That’s a great point. Some of my favorite moments in the movie are the early scenes of things going bump Bang CRASH in the night. As you pointed out in your intro to your post on [REC], these unseen, unknown sounds can have a terrifying impact in real life. I see it all the time in our dog Sadie’s nervous reactions to trucks, thunder, recent Liam Neeson movies, etc… it’s a deep-rooted, primal fear instinct. I think the horror movie landscape would be a lot richer if more filmmakers trusted these profoundly effective (not to mention incredibly cheap and simple!) offscreen sound effects.

Chris: Seance scenes are a familiar staple in horror movies (we’re going to see another one tomorrow, in fact.) In The Orphanage, the unusual and beautifully edited seance was completely original and I think the peak moment of the film for me. The eerie green lighting, the flashing lights on Aurora the medium, the weird voices and oddly specific details…all of that was just outstanding writing and directing. I loved how they’re able to take this tired old movie cliche and create something interesting and utterly frightening.

Rob: I agree. This is the part of the film that pays heavy homage to Poltergeist and it makes for a terribly effective set-piece. Bayona generates some amazing suspense just by cutting to a pencil tip drawing Aurora’s path on a graph paper blueprint of the house. Meanwhile the paranormal technicians (who ya gonna call?) twiddle their knobs trying to tune in on the staticky childrens’ voices crying out, “We’re sick!” And it all culminates in Aurora opening the bedroom door and “seeing” the supernatural realm with her eyes lit like reflective cat eyes at night. Really chilling, and just like the sound effect scares earlier in the film, it’s all the more effective for what it doesn’t show.

Chris: I’m a sucker for how directors sometimes intentionally use color, and I think Juan Antonio Bayona is, too. I’d like to digress a bit, then, and talk about how we see it used in The Orphanage. During the opening prelude, everything is shot very bright and natural. Then the movie snaps to the present, and Bayona has apparently borrowed Gore Verbinski’s blue filters from The Ring. Everything’s either got a bluish tint to it or is shot in indirect light, and it creates a very somber, melancholic atmosphere through the balance of the film, even before Simon has gone missing. Then we get that amazing seance or regression scene and everything is a spooky and distressing green. Bayona takes it back to the blues and muted light until Laura discovers Tomas’ sad little basement room, which dumps the muted filter for an almost unnaturally golden hue. It stays that way until she realizes that the blanket she’s hugging isn’t Simon at all. From that point until she’s sitting at the window, it’s all blues. Notice how in Laura’s final scenes at the window that as the kids come to her, they’re all in the muted blue section of the frame, but she sits in a direct light that almost suggests the divine. The muted filtering is then lifted again for the rest of the movie, when Carlos returns to the house.

Rob: I agree, the color palette is really nicely thought-through and executed. I’d rank Verbinski’s The Ring as my #2 favorite horror movie of the past couple decades so maybe I’m just a sucker for blue filters. But I think both films share a lot in common. They’re not too budgetarily bloated (looking at you, de Bont) and not too cheapo. Plus both films share a Hollywood-meets-world-cinema vibe. Filmic nightmares from other corners of the globe with top-tier “journeyman” directors at the helm who incorporate classic influences and have enough cash in the budget to see their visions fully realized.

Chris: I want to just talk for a bit about how much I enjoyed Belen Rueda’s performance in the lead role here. I figured she was a fairly major actress in Spain, but it turns out up until taking this role, her work was fairly limited, and mostly television stuff. For someone who could be rather easily dismissed as a TV actress, she gives a really nuanced, lovely performance here as we see Laura sliding further and further into her own psychosis.


Rob: You’re right, she’s excellent in the role. So is Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter!) as Aurora. From a screenwriting perspective, the thing that works so beautifully for me is how Laura’s journey all starts with a small and all-too-relatable moment of parental weakness. The stress of re-opening the orphanage, her son’s illness, and hosting the big welcome party all build to a head as Simon wants to show her Tomas’ little house. They argue, the cake falls, and Laura snaps, slapping her son across the face. I hear a lot of horror movie fans talk about experiencing a change in their relationship to the genre when they have children. They soften up or develop a great fear for children in peril in the movies. I think I can relate to some of that with this film. Here it’s the hot flash of anger as Laura gives in to rage, however briefly, that directly leads to all the horrific events that follow. Near the end, as she pieces together the tragedy that has transpired and her unwitting role in all of it, it’s so easy for me to go with her emotionally to her final, climactic reunion. The sweeping beam from the lighthouse is also a nice cinematic touch bookending the film. But what a horrifying notion that one angry parental slip-up will forever doom your beloved child. Jack Torrence in The Shining called it, “A few extra foot-pounds of energy per second, per second.” But he was crazy. Laura is just a mom trying her best.

Chris: Sergio Sanchez’s script ran a little hot and cold for me. I thought it did a nice job of getting hooks in us with the reveal of how Laura and Benigna’s paths had crossed before. I’m a sucker for horror fiction taking me back to mysterious pasts and hidden secrets. The flashbacks to Tomas on film are an eerie touch, and there’s something almost David Lynch-ian about his awful mask and even more awful deformities. I have to say, though, that the whole unraveling of a mystery of sick children being horrifically disposed of felt like it was lifted almost whole from a 1980 movie called The Changeling.

Rob: I only saw The Changeling once based on your recommendation years ago, but I’m surprised that bothers you here. None of the circumstances of the disinterment feel particularly similar. And The Orphanage hangs that plot point on a mother’s revenge (not unlike the original Friday the 13th) while The Changeling is built around greed and power lust (not unlike The Omen.) I’m curious why this is a negative for you rather than another example of Bayona/Sanchez being influenced by a worthy classic.

Chris: It’s the whole “Come find us and find out what really happened” portion, crossed with the sickening discovery of convenience killing of children that put me in that frame of reference, though you’re right that beyond all that there’s not too much in common. I’m also not sure how well the ending played for me. I mean it was very sweet, but it just felt a little weirdly out of place for the tone of the rest of the film. The rest of the movie is all about gloom and foreboding and fear and sadness and then there’s this weird All Dogs Go To Heaven ending with Carlos smiling like Billy Cutshaw at the end of Ninth Configuration.

Rob: You’re so right. It’s okay that Carlos finds the medallion and that Laura is effectively communicating her so-called good news from the great beyond, but that moony grin is all wrong. Neutral expression, Carlos! And can I get something else off my chest here? I really dislike the opening credits sequence to The Orphanage. I think the childrens’ hands tearing away CGI wallpaper, the mismatched graphic design of the title, and that carnivalesque, pseudo Danny Elfman score totally fails to capture and even betrays the tone and spirit of the film. The sequence is just awful. I wonder if all this Tim Burton flavor was added as a fantastical touch to try to capitalize on Guillermo del Toro’s name recognition. Whatever the reason, this is the one bum note I hear in an otherwise flawless symphony.

(The Orphanage is available to purchase or rent digitally through the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)