Written by Sergio G. Sanchez
Directed by J.A. Bayona
A Warner Brothers (of Spain) & Picturehouse Film
Starring Belen Rueda (Laura), Fernando Cayo (Carlos), Roger Princep (Simon), Montserrat Carulla (Benigna Escobeda) & Geraldine Chaplin (Aurora)
There’s something very special happening within the frames of The Orphanage: in fact, it happens so subtly and magnificently that it seems to take you by surprise. There is no reason whatsoever, within the first hour of viewing, to see the The Orphanage as anything more than just another ghost story involving children (including a lost child, which recalls Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982)). But before you realize it, The Orphanage gives you something more than your money’s worth: you get the ghosts, you get the moments that make you jump (the death of a woman in a sudden traffic accident is a perfect jumper), but by the end, you get to the heart of the story; something that enables you to feel for the heroine and all her trials up to the conclusion which, despite being tragic, gives the viewer something to cling to, something to believe in. Strange for a horror film, this film’s audience can actually rise from their seats happy. The Orphanage is a horror film for the 21st century: it thrills, it scares, but ultimately, it touches.
Laura (the emaciated Belen Rueda) returns to the closed-down orphanage where she lived briefly as a child in order to turn it into a clinic for Down Syndrome children. She’s happily married to Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and is the adopted mother of Simon (Roger Princep), whose life is in a precarious state owing to the fact that he is HIV-positive. Not long after moving in, strange things begin to happen: Simon begins to tell his mother of his imaginary friend, Tomas, who has a “little house” somewhere in the orphanage, Laura begins to see evidence that the orphanage may indeed be haunted, a woman (Montserrat Carulla) is found on the property digging around the coal shed and Laura is attacked by a little person in a mask. Is it Simon or one of Simon’s little friends? Before she can find out, Simon disappears. After months go by, Carlos is ready to accept that Simon is dead and that his disappearance will remain a mystery, but Laura asks a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) to try and contact the ghosts of the orphanage in the hopes of finding her son.
The initial comparison to Poltergeist is not a casual one: like Hooper’s Freeling family, Laura’s family leaves a bit to be desired. Carlos is a bit lethargic as a parent, Simon is a bit of a brat (well… demanding of attention would probably be a better description and what seven year-old is any different) and, although there is love between them all, Laura is already showing signs of fatigue (the only times the painfully thin Rueda doesn’t look exhausted is when she flashes her heart-warming smile). Her dream of reopening the orphanage (apparently more her endeavor than Carlos’s) is far more noble than Poltergiest‘s Steve Freeling’s (Craig T. Nelson) real estate ventures, but her natural desire to bring her dream to fruition makes her miss the clues that Simon is giving her just at the moment when she needs them most. Early in the film, Simon leads Laura through a game that he claims Tomas has initiated: they must follow a series of clues which leads to a “treasure” (which turns out to be Simon’s hidden medical file) and, if successful, they’ll be granted a wish. Simon’s energy and eagerness contrasts sharply with his mother’s tiredness as she tags along after him trying to understand what’s going on. It’s clear that Laura would rather be doing something else (especially when the trail leads to the locked drawer where she knows she will have to answer some awkward questions), but this is the very thing that Laura should be paying attention to: at the end of the film, this very game, played six months too late, will lead to answers behind Simon’s disappearance. This sequence illustrates the central problem in the relationship Laura has with her son: despite their obvious love for each other, Simon is a lonely little boy with no playmates (his excitement at finding Tomas speaks volumes) and his overworked mother simply does not have the time for him. More than anything else, this is a film about the tragedy of not recognizing what is important in our lives: Simon tries to show his mother Tomas’s “little house” (the entrance to the basement) but the harried mother has no time for her child’s foolishness (it is the clinic’s opening day), the child is upset that he’s being ignored, and Laura’s injury and Simon’s disappearance soon follow. In many ways, The Orphanage has the same qualities as the tragedies of Shakespeare, where the late arrival of a messenger or a lover’s misunderstanding brings about the destruction of the entire cast.
The Orphanage deviates from Poltergeist‘s template soon after Simon’s disappearance. While Poltergeist’s Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is missing only for a few days, the narrative of The Orphanage jumps ahead after Simon’s disappearance by six months, stressing that the HIV-positive child needs medication to maintain his health. Carlos and Laura have fallen into the daily drudge of life after Simon, checking up on hopeless leads and joining a therapy group for parents of missing children. A pall falls over the couple’s lives (and the film): the viewer realizes that there is no way, after six months, that Simon can be alive; common sense and knowledge of real-life disappearances tells us as much. Carlos is close to accepting that they’ll never find Simon alive again but Laura has no choice but to hang onto hope, as fleeting as it may be. Not only is she a mother – and therefore practically incapable of letting Simon go – but she remembers the strange circumstances surrounding Simon’s disappearance and is wondering if there was anything she could’ve done to have prevented it at the time (tragically, she learns this to be the truth). With nowhere else to turn, she consults Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin, this film’s Zelda Rubenstein), a medium, for help. The marvelous Ms. Chaplin takes the camera (on a night-vision setting that makes her pasty skin look almost alien) on a spooky and hair-raising tour of the orphanage, looking for traces of Simon, and finding the ghosts of children who, in one of the film’s most heart-breaking moments, are crying for lives that are already long since withered away. Invigorated by the experience (unlike the pragmatic Carlos, who only wants to move on), Laura stays on alone at the orphanage in a last-ditch attempt to commune with the ghosts and hopefully find Simon.
Responsibility is also a major theme in The Orphanage. We’ve already discussed Laura’s responsibility for missing the clues that would lead her to discover the whereabouts of her son (and her actual responsibility for Simon’s fate will be revealed in all its horror in the film’s final minutes), but what of the responsibility of the tragedies from years before? During the course of the film, we learn that Benigna Escobeda has willfully poisoned the orphans (Laura’s childhood friends) which has resulted in the orphanage’s haunting and has directly led to Simon’s disappearance. Her death at the business end of a city bus certainly seems deserved. But it is important to remember that this child-murderer had her reasons: the orphans played a cruel prank on Benigna’s deformed son, Tomas, stealing his face mask while the boy was in the hidden sea cave at low tide. His shame of his deformities led him to hide in the cave until the tide rolled in and drowned him. Surely, the orphans can be held responsible for Tomas’s death (Benigna certainly did), but it is important to realize that the orphans did not intend Tomas to die. Their culpability in the deaths of Simon and Laura has to be mitigated through the undeniable truth that they meant no real harm (just like Laura, an orphan herself, meant no harm when she unknowingly sets up the circumstances to Simon’s death). And as horrific as Benigna’s murder of the orphans is, the realization that she was a mother revenging her only son’s death has to be taken into consideration (although she cannot plead temporary insanity since, so many years later, she is still conniving to keep her crime a secret). All of this leads us to the moment when Laura finally finds the basement door and discovers the moldering, fly-covered body of her son; as she puts together the jigsaw pieces of that day’s events (her accidental blocking of the cellar door along with the knocking and crashing that she heard that first night), she realizes her own fault in Simon’s death. Like the orphans, she didn’t mean it, but Simon’s corpse is still a reality and her failure to be a mother when it was really needed stabs her heart just as painfully as if she had broken his neck with her own two hands.
Like Poltergeist, The Orphanage is simple film; it is the story of a mother trying to keep her family safe despite an unwelcome brush with the supernatural. But Poltergeist ultimately doesn’t want its characters stepping past the veil that separates this world from the next and, despite its suspense scenes, keeps the Freeling family well within the realm of safe return. Even little Carol Anne, missing only for a few days and rescued by a medium’s determination and a mother’s love, is retrieved from the other side healthy, happy and with only a thick layer of ectoplasm keeping her from her parents’ loving arms. She fares much better than poor little Simon, whose fate lies not in the realm of the netherworld, but in the simple questions of chance and the deciphering of clues. After Laura plays the ghost children’s game (following their clues), she discovers that Simon has not been spirited away by ghosts but has instead been trapped in the basement for months: his entrance accidently blocked by her, the strange knocking at the door his, and the crash she heard the sound of him falling from the stairway and breaking his neck. But the rules of the ghost children still hold true: upon finding Simon, Laura makes a wish (“I want Simon back”) and, after swallowing handfuls of pills, she gets it. Laura, now a ghost herself, is content to be the nursemaid to Simon and the other ghost children of the orphanage.
In the end, we are left with the formally pragmatic Carlos who seems to accept that his wife and child are alive in the orphanage, keeping each other content. And it is his smile that leads us to the closing credits, the smile of new-found faith in the afterlife. Ultimately, The Orphanage celebrates ghosts because they are eventually what we will all become, living in a world divorced from pain and misery and granting us our dearest wishes.