My passion for ghost stories has led me to watch countless horror flicks and boy, are a lot of them bad.
I get it. Filmmakers want to make a ‘scary movie’; they come up with a premise, find a atmospheric location, throw in some neat effects…and then crap out on the storyline.
So many films start out with such promise! They lure me in with an intriguing set up and my tender, black heart eagerly anticipates a satisfying horror. But somehow the plot takes a backseat to cheap scares and about halfway through all notions of story structure fall apart. We are left with an unsatisfactory ending rendering the whole thing rather pointless.
Man, I hate that!
This is not the case with the 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage (El orfanato) directed by J.A. Bayona and produced by Guillermo del Toro.
This is a great movie, plain and simple. The plot masterfully weaves reoccurring motifs, carrying the drama to a satisfying conclusion all the while delivering some truly terrifying visuals.
The Orphanage will stay with you; not just because of the unnerving imagery but also because of its poignant humanity.
The story centres on Laura who returns to the orphanage of her childhood with her husband, Carlos, and young son, Simón, in order to turn the neglected building into a centre for children with special needs. The imaginative Simón claims to see a boy named Tomás who, creepily, appears with sack mask over his head. Strange events begin to occur and as opening day drawers nearer the building’s dark secrets and Laura’s repressed memories begin to surface in terrifying and disturbing ways.
It’s got all the ingredients of a good ol’ fashion gothic horror; creepy children, an abandoned building, a protagonist confronted by unseen forces, heck there’s even a proper séance! There is also a healthy helping of psychological drama added to the mix, making it a richer experience for the viewer.
A respite from shock-horror, this movie hums with ever-present emotional tension as our heroine’s anxiety builds while she unravels the mysteries of the orphanage. Its otherworldly quality leaves us wondering what is real and what is not, and the film makers wisely create space for the viewer’s own imagination to fluctuate between the two.
One of the most unnerving scenes I’ve ever seen on film occurs when Laura plays the child’s game “Un, dos, tres, toca la pared” in a dark and empty room. It’s brilliantly shot all in one take with no music and no sound effects, the seconds ticking on breathlessly until its climax. I have shivers just recalling this moment.
The film serves the story above all else and the puzzle pieces we’ve been snatching up along the way artfully lock into place for one of the most satisfying endings I’ve seen in a horror film.
The Orphanage deserves a place among such classic ghost stories as The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), and The Devil’s Backbone (2001). You’d do well to watch it alone in the dark on some stormy night.
Emily Klassen is a Toronto-based classical soprano and a screen actor. She gained international recognition for her operatic performance in the NBC series Hannibal. Emily is an avid fan of all things spooky, taking a keen interest in Victorian Gothic literature, supernatural films, shows and podcasts.
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