Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Premise: A couple renovates a former orphanage into a home for handicapped children. Their own son plays with imaginary friends who might actually be ghosts.
What Works: Movies about hauntings are generally about the past reverberating into the present. In most cases these stories are about some injustice of the elder generation that literally returns to haunt their descendants. In the case of a haunted house movie, these stories are often specifically about the way a physical structure is connected to the legacy of a past sin and in many cases the house or the building is contaminated and has to be destroyed or exorcised in order to reestablish stability. In that paradigm, haunted house movies are frequently about malevolent spirits that disrupt and prey upon a nuclear family. The Orphanage is an interesting haunted house picture because it both fulfills and upends the expectations of its subgenre. In this film a couple prepares their new home to accept handicapped children but their own adopted child begins behaving strangely. He plays with imaginary friends and those games take on the intensity and reality of an actual relationship. For most of the film it is ambiguous as to whether the house is actually haunted or if the boy is just acting out some childhood fantasy. One of the keys to making a supernatural movie work is to establish rational and skeptical characters and force them to become believers. In movies like The Exorcist, where an agnostic is converted into a believer by putting her possessed daughter through a battery of tests, the revelation of supernatural reality is much stronger and gives the movie an added punch. In The Orphanage the mother must come to understand not only the metaphysical nature of what is going on but also solve the riddles that have been left for her. That means deciphering the logic of children. For many adults, even those who spend a lot of time with youngsters, there is something mysterious about children and childhood. Children have a logic and a point of view of the world that is lost on adults and the filmmakers of The Orphanage tap into this mystery. The story takes several unexpected turns and each revelation opens up a new dimension of what is really going on in the house but also subverts the assumptions of the average haunted house movie. Where a lot of haunted house pictures are about a family under assault, The Orphanage goes in a slightly different direction that is more nuanced and complex.
What Doesn’t: When the story of The Orphanage moves into its final act the husband leaves his wife and she remains in the home that may or may not be haunted. This is very strange and the husband’s decision is not entirely credible. The film does not lay the foundation for this break up and so it comes across as an excuse to get the father out of the story. The Orphanage is an unusual haunted house movie and it may not necessarily be the film that audiences expect. As a horror film and specifically as a haunted house story, audiences will approach this movie with certain expectations. The Orphanage does not always meet those expectations and in some cases it reverses them. That is to the movie’s credit but the film lacks the kinds of sequences in which characters wander dark empty corridors while spooky sounds echo on the soundtrack. Horror audiences who come to The Orphanage expecting something along the lines of Poltergeist will not find it here. This is a quieter, more thoughtful, and in some ways more poetic movie than that; it’s less about thrills and more about atmosphere.
DVD extras: Featurettes, image gallery, and trailers.
Bottom Line: The Orphanage is a very thoughtful and well-made haunted house picture. It may not deliver the shocks of a mainstream horror film but it does tap into something that is mysterious and, in a few places, profound.
Episode: #565 (October 25, 2015)