Guillermo Del Toro, the director of "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy", seems determined to revive the ghost story. Quite frankly, we need it. Too many 'horror' films are excuses for filmmakers to throw buckets of blood and gore at the screen, hurling everything at us in an attempt to see what sticks, or more appropriately, what makes us sick. Gone are the suspense and terror filmmakers like Hitchcock ("Psycho"), Robert Wise ("The Haunting") and John Carpenter (the original "Halloween") who created films with such skill, riveting us to our seats and scaring us away from showers, dark houses and babysitters. Now, 'horror' films seem determined to use as many special effects as possible to recreate the goriest, most vial displays. How is this suspenseful or frightening? It is merely sickening.
So, it was especially nice to see "The Orphanage", a truly creepy, scary ghost story produced by Del Toro and directed by JA Bayona.
A brief prologue introduces us to the Orphanage, situated near the ocean. The headmistress takes a phone call and it becomes apparent Laura, who is outside playing with the other five children in the home, will soon be leaving her friends for the comfort of a new family. Many years later, Laura (Belen Rueda), returns to the orphanage with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep). Laura and her husband have purchased the building and are renovating it to care for five or six children "with special needs". As the renovations continue, Simon makes a new invisible friend and begins talking with him. This is really nothing new for Laura and Carlos, Simon has other invisible friends, so they aren't really concerned. But when Laura takes Simon down to the beach, and they explore the caves, Laura begins to suspect something is different. During the party, to celebrate the opening of their house, Laura has a run in with a strange child wearing a scarecrow mask and Simon disappears. Laura and Carlos search desperately for Simon, following every lead and looking everywhere. They meet a man who agrees to help and brings in a medium, Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie's daughter). Infrared equipment is set up everywhere and they watch Aurora's every move as she tries to communicate with the spirits, the presence she feels. After a particularly harrowing moment, she comes back to the present and tells them they have many spirits roaming the house. Six to be precise. As Laura becomes more and more determined to find Simon, she also begins to unravel the secrets behind the other visitors in the house.
"The Orphanage" isn't so much about horror, or shock value, as it is about setting the mood for events that will transpire, creating suspense. From the moment Laura, Carlos and Simon return to the orphanage, to set up their home, we know they have made a bad decision. Why would Laura want to return to the orphanage where she grew up, to set up her new home? This seems strange at first. Was she drawn back to this place? Is there some tie with it, making her return? Then, we learn of Laura and Carlos' plan to reopen the home and care for children with development problems and disabilities. Laura wants to give back some of the help and kindness she received as a child, leading her to take on this huge task.
As Laura and Carlos go about setting up this house, they try to provide a normal family life for Simon. But Simon has special needs of his own, and they try to deal with, and address these needs. They try to go about their normal activities, but every time they hear a crash, Laura stops and shudders, not from fright, but because some worker somewhere has probably cost her some more money or delay the project. This is a great way for the filmmakers to divert attention, to give us some false chills, and make the real scares even better.
As they get settled in, and begin to explore the grounds. Laura tells Simon about the lighthouse just a bit away, and how she and the other children used to find comfort in it's light. She and Simon spend a lot of time together and begin to explore the grounds. One day, as they enter a cave on the beach, Simon tells his mother of his new friend. Laura has clearly heard of other invisible friends in Simon's life and seems to give it little regard, until he runs off and she sees two sets of footprints.
When they are ready to open the house to the other children, they throw a party to welcome everyone. But Simon disappears and Laura has a run-in with a child wearing an old smock, like she wore at the orphanage when she was a child. More bothersome, the child is also wearing a burlap mask with a big smile painted on. Who is this child?
When they realize Simon is gone, Laura and Carlos put everything else on hold to search for their son.
As all of this is going on, I was amazed at how well Bayona maintains the feel of impending horror. The key to this success lies in how realistic everything appears. Laura's impending dread is almost palpable and Rueda does a great job of making her seem real. As the film progresses, the relationship between Laura and Carlos takes some natural turns and develops in a real way.
But everything kicks into high gear when the medium, Aurora, played by Geraldine Chaplin, appears. Carlos is reluctant to go along with this, but because he loves his wife, he follows her lead. And Laura is willing to try anything and everything to find their son. Aurora's associates set-up elaborate recording equipment throughout the house. Then, they put her in the old children's bedroom and watch as she tries to communicate with the spirit or spirits in the house. She almost immediately makes contact and begins to walk through the house, trying to find out more about them, about what they need. As Aurora talks to these spirits, we follow her progress as Laura does, watching everything through monitors, the images captured in grainy green infrared monitors. As we follow her progress, we believe she is actually communicating with these spirits and hope she will be able to make some sort of breakthrough.
Chaplin does a great job of making this character believable, scary, yet natural. Aurora believes she can communicate with the dead. Because she believes, there is no reason for her to protest when other people doubt. She knows the truth.
More importantly, this sequence is all the more effective because we are watching along with Carlos and Laura, as Aurora progresses through the rooms. We don't see ghosts, or spirits materialize out of thin air, we only hear Aurora trying to communicate with them. We only hear what she says, and it is cryptic at best, but it is very effective at making the scene creepy and spine tingling.
Then, Laura continues to search and when the truth is finally revealed, we feel everything she feels.
I guess, long story – short (I know, too late), what I am trying to say is Guillermo Del Toro is quietly trying to revive the ghost story, the horror film, and wants us to feel the genuine scares and chills behind the characters and the stories. He is making some scary films, and he is earning our fright with intelligent, well-made efforts that just might prove more influential than the current crop of torture porn.
"The Orphanage" is very successful at creating a mood of impending horror, terror and dread, using none of the techniques we have become accustomed to in horror films. Thank goodness.