I saw Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage about an hour ago, and the people I saw it with didn’t like it. I liked it very much. Because of this difference of opinion, I am going to break again with my “no movie” rule on this web log.
“The Orphanage” is a psychological thriller reminiscent of the original “The Haunting,” which was also born outside the US. It incorporates several aesthetic elements that have proven themselves useful in the genre along with a couple other tricks. It isn’t as gory or as grating as most of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but it has a sense of claustrophobia and limited line of sight that everyone loved in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and, if you will, the first “Die Hard.” People are afraid of not being able to move around. So, when the protagonist stays around when she doesn’t have to, it’s thrilling.
One might say that these elements make the story predictable, but the movie is not about making you jump when the monster springs onto frame; it’s about allowing the audience to invest in the main character so that, even though you know when you’re going to be scared, you’re still surprised. It incorporates many things that feel familiar, but that’s part of the whole heimlich vs. unheimlich thing. Making the familiar strange and the strange familiar is something “The Orphanage” is quite good at.
It’s a puzzle movie, like its cousin, “The Others,” but rather than giving you a big money shot in the end, it lets you solve the puzzle moments before the protagonist does. You see the clues first, you understand them first, you want to scream at the person on the screen to help her get out of the box she’s in, to help her out of the labyrinth. Pan’s labyrinth.
And its failures are like those of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It has the heavy-handed dialogue explaining what you already know, the forced happy ending where you know there really isn’t one. Guillermo Del Torro produced it, and perhaps he brought a little more cons than pros to the table on this one. People always forget that he directed "Hell Boy" and "Mimic." But it also has all of "Pan's Labyrinth"'s triumphs. You care about the characters, you’re pulled into spaces you wouldn’t want to go, you believe in a fantasy world for a couple of hours. This time, miraculously I think, from the eyes of an adult.
Telling the story from the adult’s point of view is a little ballsy, especially since we’ve all seen how successfully frightening films are when the camera is the eyes of a child or a helpless adolescent female. This story features a strong, grown up woman played by Belen Rueda, who calls the cops, and who the cops listen to. It’s refreshing to watch a smart woman do smart things on film. Movies are seldom kind to women.
Ultimately, “The Orphanage” is a haunted house movie. It has everything you’ve come to expect from a haunted house movie. But I’ve ceased expecting film makers to reinvent the wheel every time they say action. If they can intelligently approach something I know I already like, that’s more than enough for me.