I’ve been following Guillermo del Toro’s career for a while now. PAN’S LABRYINTH? Effing brilliant and easily the most imaginative, emotionally-wrenching, and layered movie of 2007 (going by the wide release date of January, 2007, and not the academy-qualifying date of December, 2006). So you should go see the new movie he’s produced, THE ORPHANAGE. Immediately. Sooner, if you have children.
There’s something about a deep understanding of guilt and redemption, Catholic-style, that meshes well with the kind of horror that marks much of del Toro’s work. As with THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (also about a creepy orphanage), del Toro favors horror that works by implication instead of relying on gouts of bloodletting and dismemberment to shock. I guess I’d call it character-driven horror, or expectations of the horror genre wedded to drama’s revelations about character.
As we know from POLTERGEIST, hauntings often occur because some sort of justice has been denied the dead. (HB, quoting POLTERGEIST: “‘You moved the headstones, but not the bodies!’” Which is in no way a spoiler of THE ORPHANAGE.) Well, if the dead denied justice must rely on the world of the living to avenge them, then guilt is a major emotional component of the need to act. What propels someone to tunnel into tight places or pursue strange noises down dark corridors, after all? The dead demand to be redeemed; they’ve chosen you. Now, will you abandon them?
In THE ORPHANAGE, Laura buys an old orphanage with her husband and prepares to refurbish it to house orphaned children again. She herself lived at the orphanage and was adopted as a child shortly before it closed down years ago, and she is also the mother of an adopted son of 8, Simon.
It’s not long before the creepy children who used to inhabit the orphanage start playing ominous games with Simon, whose health is fragile. The story coils admirably tight around your heart and squeezes when Simon disappears, and in order to find him again, Laura is forced to delve into both the history of the haunted orphanage and also their immediate history since occupying the house as a family. Laura and Simon’s reunion is both what you hope for and, like a little trail of supernatural seashells leading up to your door, what you dread.
del Toro and the writer and director of this film, Sergio Sanchez and Juan Bayona, respectively, expertly capture the eerie “I see dead people” quality of children. Who hasn’t noticed their newborn struggling to focus on something at a far remove, appearing to see something or someone that we cannot, and been slightly freaked out? It’s easy to believe that children are more attuned to the supernatural, given that they emerge from a magical place bound with superstition and arrive here in powerful and mysterious ways.
Like a dark, twisted version of Spielberg, who has a much sunnier intuitiveness about family dynamics, these filmmakers mine a gut understanding about kids and their power to make adults around them wilt at our inability to protect them from every harm. The makers of THE ORPHANAGE don’t just pluck your heartstrings, they grab a fistful and twist, hard–to the point where we squirm in terrified anticipation of our failure. Which is always imminent.
And it’s completely in keeping with del Toro’s body of work so far to alchemize mere sentimentalism into dark-tinged pathos; I see why he supported these young first-time filmmakers. The sleight of hand required to pull off the story is fairly deft and well-executed, the few logical flaws I could forgive in exchange for the willies the movie raised in me. I relish scary stories that do their most disturbing work on you internally, and this one had me reeling for a bit afterwards.
I can’t give away the ending except to say Laura is both the best and worst mother ever rolled into one. This is why the movie got under my skin so thoroughly–who doesn’t strive to be the most loving, devoted parent ever, and who doesn’t fail in spectacularly human (and inadvertent) ways? Often on the same day, in the same moment? And on rare occasions, with horrifying consequences? Mothers especially will have a special shudder of recognition and the feeling, “There but for the grace of god go I.”