We all know about Guillermo Del Toro’s obsession with the supernatural, surreal and fantastic – Perhaps many of us have watched the majestic Pan’s Labyrinth, or the Hellboy series, both generously suffused with special effects – an approach that has become his signature. However, this time around, he’s donned the producer’s hat, and put his old friend Juan Antonio Bayona in the director’s chair. Bayona has repaid his debt by making a film that could have been easily mistaken as Del Toro’s brainchild. And his debut attempt is a brilliant one that swept the audience and critics off their feet alike.
The most appealing, or perhaps annoying (to horror film buffs who love gore) aspect of this film, is how it avoids the clichés symbolic of the horror genre – gore, blood, disfigured zombies, disemboweled bodies, scary music and the works. Bayona instead accentuates germane sounds like the banging of a door, clanking metal, hissing sounds but the impact is almost the same – it leaves you wondering what’s coming next. The film is more of a supernatural thriller than a typical horror film that we are used to. But the lack of employment of such tactics has not toned down its appeal or the scare factor; rather Bayona has put his imagination to good use, and given us as an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will keep us engaged pretty much till the end.
Laura (Belén Rueda), a 37-year old orphan has just moved in to her new home with her husband and son, Simon. Her new home also happens to be her childhood home, The Good Shepherd Orphanage, where she lived with five other children, before being adopted by a family. Simon makes some new ghost friends that he can talk to, who are only visible to him. Like any adult, his parents shrug off this information as his fantasy, or way to cope up with loneliness. But his mother has her own doubts, that are confirmed when Simon disappears during a party.
Months pass by without any information on Simon’s whereabouts, until Laura decides to take things into her own hands, and take the alternative route – the paranormal way. She takes help of an oracle who informs her that there are, actual spirits in the house, and if she needs to find Simon, she must take their help. Any more information on what ensues would be superfluous – further disclosure of the plot would ruin the surprises, but let’s just say those who are familiar with the story of Peter Pan, Wendy and the Lost Boys would know where it’s going to lead.
The Orphanage faintly reminds us of the old psychological horror films, where the focus was on the past having an influence on the present – ghost(s) of older resident(s) of the house looking for salvation through a [usually] compassionate or sensitive character, for instance. In the process, the film takes us through journeys of many characters from the past and present, revealing the agony, betrayal, and sheer evil that become the theme of the film. The Orphanage is reminiscent of these, but with a twist. Bayona has focused more on the emotional upheaval of the central character, Laura, than cheap scary thrills. Her acting is what gives the film its soul – her franticness, her frustration, and her desperation truly convey the depth of a mother’s emotions on losing her only child, even if he is adopted, and afflicted with a terminal disease. And it’s this grief, this frustration that leads her to find out what happened to her son. When her husband tells her, “We can pull through this, there are a lot of parents out there who lose their child,” her expressions tell us that he’s talking to a mad woman – a mother mad about her only child. And that’s what worked the most for Bayona, in addition to his penchant for telling a good story like it is.
Seems like Bayona has also picked up a few tips from his director-cum-writer-turned-producer friend, like how good cinematography can make a film even better. Shot in breathtaking locales in Spain, every scene in The Orphanage could have been a real piece of art or simply a holiday postcard from the most exotic places on this planet. However, interspersed with such beautiful panoramic shots are haunting scenes full of shadows and underlit rooms with a tinge of menacing light, that are spooky in a strange way. As a viewer, you are constantly transported between two worlds – one perfectly real, the other disturbingly terrifying. In a nutshell, if Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 28 Days Later or the Saw series is what you dig, The Orphanage is going to be a bummer. But if you are looking for a visually spectacular, classic horror, or a deeply stirring film, (Or even if you’re an M Night Shyamalan fan) you’ll find a lot to love about the film. Don’t expect much from the music. The acting, sounds and the visuals more than compensate though! Do check out Spain’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language film.