‘The Orphanage’ more than just a horror film
December 28, 2007
Juan Antonio Bayona places his chips on the idea that the most frightening visions dwell in the human imagination ” especially in the imagination of a young boy. During his childhood in Spain, Bayona recalls that there was never a shortage of horror films shown on TV.
Oftentimes they were more than he could handle, so he would retreat to his bed, shutting out the images but still within earshot of the sound. There he would let his imagination run wild.
“The movies I imagined in my mind were more scary than the actual movies going on, on the screen,” said Bayona by phone.
The decades have not tamped down the terror Bayona is able to conjure in his mind. The 32-year-old director’s feature debut, “The Orphanage,” is a fearsome story of the children who have died in an orphanage on Spain’s Catalonian coast, and the family who tries to settle in the dark, spook-filled quarters. Bayona says that after a decade making music videos, short films and commercials ” none of the spine-tingling variety ” he wasn’t looking to begin his career in features with a horror film.
But after seeing “7337,” a short film by fellow Spaniard Sergio Sanchez that went on to win multiple awards, Bayona discovered that Sanchez had another script, which echoed the themes in “7337” of abandoned places and the spectral presences left behind. With the influential backing of Guillermo del Toro, who had been an admirer of Bayona’s work since the latter was a student, Bayona earned the opportunity to direct Sanchez’s screenplay of “The Orphanage.” The film has fulfilled Bayona’s childhood boasts of being able to create a movie better than those he saw on TV as a kid. “The Orphanage,” with del Toro credited as a producer, earned seven awards ” including best film ” from the Barcelona Film Awards, and is Spain’s submission for the Oscar for best foreign language film.
While noting that he didn’t necessarily seek to make a horror film, Bayona also offers the opinion that he did not, in fact, make one. “The Orphanage” presents the full array of cinematic techniques that elicit audience screeches: a dark palette, ominous music, and the kind of creeping camerawork reminiscent of films like “The Shining.” And, yes, there are moments when filmgoers will collectively jump.
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But where horror movies are specifically about causing such responses, Bayona sees his movie as belonging to a separate class of film: the ghost story. In the wake of the repressive Franco regime, ghost stories became a way of speaking metaphorically about what happened in Spain.
“A ghost story doesn’t have to be a horror story,” said Bayona. “That’s the lesson I learned as a kid, watching Spanish movies about the Franco regime. They deal with ghosts, with loss, ghosts as something psychological, not related to visual effects. Everything in this script happens in the mind of Laura.”
Laura, played by Belen Rueda (who was featured in the 2004 Oscar-winning Spanish film, “The Sea Inside”), is the central figure of “The Orphanage.” As a child, she was an orphan at the seaside institution. As a grown woman, she has returned with her family ” husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), a doctor, and their son Simon (Roger Princep) ” to live in the grand, Gothic-looking mansion.
The family is well-to-do, and equally well-intentioned. Laura’s plan is to turn the mansion back into the caring refuge for troubled children she remembers from her youth. But Laura’s rosy memories are selective, and on deeper reflection, she recalls that there were darker things lurking in the shadows of her memory.
Spookier still is Simon. An orphan, infected with HIV, the 6-year-old is especially sensitive to his environment. The ghosts of the children who had been orphans years ago become his invisible playmates. They whisper to him secrets a little boy has no business knowing. One day Simon disappears. Over time, everyone, including Carlos, assumes that he is a victim of the tides and caves that surround the house. But Laura ” as an orphan, and with her intimate history with the house and its spirits ” believes that something from the past has taken her son.
“The Orphanage” echoes such haunted-house movies as “The Others” and “The Shining.” A scene in which Laura summons a team of parapsychologists recalls “Poltergeist.” But perhaps the film that is its closest kin is “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 Oscar-winning film set in Fascist Spain. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Orphanage” uses not just horror, but a broad set of elements ” fantasy, the child-parent relationship, memory ” to tell a story of faith and disillusion.
“I never thought of ‘The Orphanage’ just as a horror film,” said Bayona. “I saw the emotional aspects, the spirituality. It’s like a perfect thing, a very smart script. It’s like a psychological portrait, a real drama of a woman who can’t deal with loss.”