(01/04/08) – A ringing endorsement from Guillermo Del Toro may create the same kind of viewer expectation as the one given by Pedro Almodovar to Del Toro’s earlier film The Devil’s Backbone. Whereas both The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage are Spanish chillers set in orphanages, there is a much sharper and more electrified tone, if not quite so much uniqueness, to Juan Bayona’s debut feature. The lack of originality is not a fault in the film. The countless images and references lifted from other classic ghost flicks are so brilliantly put together that they act to intensify the suspense and sense of loss so necessary for a haunting ghost classic. While managing to evoke some of the great atmospheric ghost movies in cinema’s history, this film certainly isn’t dusty in its approach. In many ways it is the perfect mix of European sophistication, film school genre reverence and Hollywood roller-coaster thrill ride.
Many recent films in the genre have failed to deliver the classic thrills of earlier ghost movies, with films like The Sixth Sense and The Others offering little more than a disposable experience – entertaining films with some atmosphere but so reliant on plot twists that not much else of the film stays with you. Bayona’s film invests so much in the genre that it is arrives with a great ambiguous plot, both believable and sweet enough to draw you in and suspend your disbelief, whilst also offering a psychological and plausible alternative that pulls you along half believing in ghosts, half believing in a solvable mystery. The result on the viewer is a state similar to being caught in that space between sleep and consciousness, dream and reality. The filmmakers then use every trick in the book to make you tense, hopeful, scared, sad, and emotionally bruised.
The Orphanage is a brilliantly composed recycled ghost movie in the same way that many of Tarantino’s films have looted and recycled genres, in the same way that the best pop music lifts riffs from its predecessors. Bayona is open about his intention to invest influences such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting, or Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. There are also echoes of Peter Medak’s The Changeling and Sluizer’s The Vanishing. However, these and other great films are used to give birth to a completely new film.
When you see a stair case descending into inky blackness, or hear the creak of the unpushed door, or see the merry-go-round slowly turn in the yard of the looming house, you will not only be scared by what you think is happening in the film but part of your brain will also be off somewhere trying to remember where you have seen something similar – a search that sends shivers up the spine as the result of the search is potentially some other hidden moment, filmic or real, that scared you senseless in the past.
In some ways The Orphanage is such a strong film that it gets the genre back on track. Many reviews will refer to it as a horror film when it is not. For decades now the Horror genre has gone far down the line of showing every physical nightmare that could possibly be inflicted upon the viewer. The Orphanage is not a horror film, it is a ‘chiller’ – a haunting ghost movie with a current of sentimental hope and sadness running under all of the terrifying sequences. Nothing happens that is not believable both as a ghost story and realistic mystery – there are stylised and deliberate ‘flaws’ to give the film more mystery and resonance, but on the whole the plot is finely woven, threading in old stories and childhood games to leave a sense of trails for the viewer to follow along characters.
Predictably, the film will be re-shot in the English but it’s hard to think of any reason for a remake when you can watch this film again and again. The sadness of the re-make lies in the fact that many of the film’s most resonatingly beautiful touches come from the Spanish elements, from the humour, the language (especially between mother and child) and from the location. Fortunately, the remake is a while off so there is plenty of time to enjoy the ride and get spooked out by this gem of a ghost film.
The Orphanage is currently playing in the UK and Poland.