To quote my co-goblin Alex: “Why do people find orphans so scary?” From the shrill hysteria of Orphan to the shrill hysteria of Annie, cinema is rife with stories of those born without parents. The best of these films is 2007’s The Orphanage (El Orfanato), a Spanish chiller produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by J.A. Bayona. Or to use his full name, Jefferson Airplane Bayona.
The film follows Laura (Belén Rueda) who moves into the creepy orphanage in which she lived as a child, which is called the Good Shepherd Orphanage. Like the Jefferson Airplane song. Spooky. On the face of it, this is another generic haunted house flick. But it demonstrates the power of proper storytelling, thoughtful directing and believable characters. With all those elements in place, The Orphanage is a modern classic.
God knows why anyone would let a child walk around wearing that scary sack mask, or why anyone would choose to live in such a terrifying orphanage. In a lesser film, probably produced by James Wan, I would take great issue with these tropes. I’d probably write something unfathomably witty, like calling him James Wanker or something brilliant like that.
The difference is that The Orphanage is clearly made by people interested in the story they’re telling, as opposed to those filming found-footage movies in their own house so they can claim it against their taxes. Bayona talks about approaching every project by finding what the film is about, and this is self-evident in The Orphanage as well as this year’s A Monster Calls, both films characterised by an instantly believable bond between mother and son.
Fear is such a primal response, we only experience it in a way that’s meaningful when we believe in what we’re witnessing on some level. Cynical horror films are boring because our brains shut down when they can tell they’re being shown a bunch of stuff for no reason. Everything in The Orphanage fits together, as though writer Sergio G. Sánchez has actually thought about it. And because it fits together in our minds, we get scared. Properly scared.
And not just scared. This picture is as heart-breaking as it is heart-racing. It’s the depth of emotion behind the sack mask that makes it so haunting. Bayona knows exactly when to show restraint and when to show pain, when to make us jump and when to make us cry. From the inspired opening titles and music to the beautiful sound and production design, The Orphanage is one of those films that just works.
It works because everything in it happens for a reason. Even when Laura sends her husband (Fernando Cayo) away so she can be alone in the haunted orphanage, we understand her motivation. It works because she feels like a real, intelligent character, albeit with strange residential tastes. It works because Rueda plays her with the same fantastic mixture of strength and vulnerability that makes Julia’s Eyes so believable.
Horror films like The Orphanage and The Others show that genre clichés can be used in ingenious ways. They simply require a brilliant Spanish director. Great horror directors create films that would scare them. There’s no way the people who made Jigsaw were scared until they saw that second-weekend box office drop. The Orphanage is the opposite, a horror movie made with love. To quote Jefferson Airplane’s Good Shepherd, it’s one to make my heart rejoice.