500 Days Of Film Reviews A Ghostly Classic - The Orphanage
Laura (Belén Rueda) returns with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their young son Simón (Roger Príncep) to the orphanage where she grew up, intending to reopen the building as a home for children with special needs.
However, before long, Laura finds herself haunted by more than just the memories of her past.
A Horror Classic
In 2008, a Spanish film from a first time director was released in UK cinemas. That director was J. A. Bayona and his film, The Orphanage, would soon become a horror classic.
Since The Orphanage's release, much has changed for Bayona. He directed The Impossible about a family's struggle for survival following 2004's Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, he directed one of 2018's biggest blockbuster movies, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and, in 2004, received both audience and critical acclaim for his powerful film about the 1972 Uruguayan Andes flight disaster, Society Of The Snow.
However, while rewatching The Orphanage I am reminded that much also remains the same - Bayona's "quiet horror" debut is as powerful, haunting and terrifying as ever.
The key to the effectiveness (and lasting success) of The Orphanage is its blend of scares and heart. “I wanted people to be really scared by a horror film and deeply touched by a drama,” Bayona explains in an interview (from my DVD copy of The Orphanage - long live physical media).
Indeed, it would take a cold, hard heart not to be moved by Laura’s plight. Meanwhile, it would take a braver constitution than mine to resist the film’s unsettling atmosphere. Bayona both employs and examines classic horror tropes - the haunted house, a fear of creepy children and the “hysterical” woman - to create a compelling and utterly gripping mystery.
However, Bayona also brings something new and unexpected to the tale - one of the most stunning film endings of all time. When The Orphanage’s secrets are revealed and the story’s loose ends finally come together, we are left shocked and devastated.
Bayona came across the script for The Orphanage after watching screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez’s short film, 7337. Sánchez had written The Orphanage - his debut script - in the style of the movies he loved as a child (including Poltergeist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby). The writer drew from his own childhood (he, like Simón, had imaginary friends called Watson and Pepe) and was also influenced by classic books such as Peter Pan and The Turn Of The Screw.
Sánchez initially wanted to direct the movie himself. However, he could not secure the funding (his own feature directorial debut, Marrowbone, was released in 2018). As a result, he offered his script to Bayona who saw incredible potential in this ghost story.
Bayona wanted to make an old fashioned studio movie on a grand scale - doubling the film’s initial budget. The scope of his ambition was impressive - especially for his first foray into making a feature-length film (he had previously made music videos and shorts). However, the chances of his being able to raise the money necessary to bring his dream to life were low.
Low, that is, until he received support from a very special source. Bayona had met Guillermo del Toro at a presentation of the director’s film, Cronos. Knowing his reputation for helping newbie filmmakers, Bayona showed him The Orphanage’s script. “It’s the best Spanish film script I’ve ever read in this genre,” del Toro remembers (in a DVD interview). The power of the story combined with Bayona’s “cinematic intelligence” prompted the Oscar winning director to become the film's executive producer and, thereafter, support and supervise The Orphanage’s development.
“Without Guillermo’s great support, we couldn’t have done it,” says Bayona. Watching The Orphanage, you can certainly sense del Toro's influence. The director has spoken of the link between this film and his 2006 classic, Pan’s Labyrinth. Both movies contain devastating Peter Pan references. Both movies explore the magical power of faith - how the strength of belief can allow us to see reality in a different way.
Realism and Authenticity
The Orphanage inhabits two worlds - the real and the supernatural. Throughout the film, we are uncertain as to whether Laura is being haunted by ghosts or by trauma (both past and present). The Orphanage takes care to honor these two perspectives - the film does not break its own rules and its story can be read in two ways (even when you know the ending).
A sense of authenticity was secured both in front of and behind the camera. After finding the perfect house for the film's external shots (Bayona wanted something sober, majestic and rather decadent), the inside of the orphanage was built in incredible detail. “It was a director’s dream,” Bayona recalls.
The set allowed cinematographer, Oscar Faura, the freedom to move throughout the space in new and increasingly disorientating ways and gave him greater control over the film’s lighting. The aim was to keep the lighting as realistic as possible. Bayona wanted his audience to feel the reality of Laura’s horrifying experience. As a result, Faura avoided artificial effects wherever possible.
Lighting was also key in creating the film's mystery. The Orphanage’s colour tones are clues as to what is real and what is, perhaps, supernatural. For example, at the beginning of the film, when Laura is excited and optimistic about her plans for the orphanage, the film is bathed in warm colours.
Then, when Laura and Carlos allow a team of para-psychologists to investigate the ghostly presence that Laura senses in the orphanage, the film is shot with a green light that matches the monitoring equipment. At the end of the film, The Orphanage is dominated by cold, blue tones as Laura is tormented by her fears for Simón.
The Orphanage's sound design is endlessly impressive. Again, Bayona stressed the need for realism and authenticity. Sound designer, Oriol Tarragó, viewed the house in The Orphanage as another character in the film.
Tarragó, (who also provided the sound design for Spanish horror classic, Rec, was a sound editor on Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil’s Backbone and also worked on Society Of The Snow), first met Bayona when they both were in college. In an interview with Designing Sound, Tarragó recalls visiting an old house that belonged to his family in order to capture some of the film's unnerving soundscape.
"I recorded steps from different floors, bangs on the wooden beams, doors slammed from different positions within the house and glass windows being opened and closed. The creaks I got from the main staircase of the house were edited later into the foley footsteps to get that creaky wood floor of the house".
One of The Orphanage's key scenes involves a séance. Tarragó recorded the voices of lots of different children: "We used ADR actors, children actors and the children of relatives and friends. It took us a long time of recording to get the truly terrified screams. We had to play scary games to have the kids scream".
Tarragó also locked himself in his studio to "create weird sounds with my mouth, using water, which I later used to create Tomás’ breathing. I wanted to create some breathing made up by two textures, a very high-pitched, almost choking one, and another one that had a rather animal, low-pitched and threatening tone. Sergio, the screenwriter, told me that he’d had asthma as a child. I recorded his breathing and used his sounds for the inhaling and the sounds I made for the exhaling".
Silence is, of course, as important to The Orphanage as sound. “We realised that adding too many sound effects or synthesizer-created atmospheres - which in other films increase suspense - would have the opposite effect in this one,” Tarragó recalls. The film employs a gradual loss of sound to mirror Laura's emotional and psychological journey. When sound returns in the film it is both heartbreaking and terrifying.
Creeping Tension versus Jump Scares
When I think of The Orphanage, I don't think about jump scares. For the avoidance of doubt, I have no issue with jump scares - they just have to be well earned. It is easy to make someone jump and, yes, it can be fun too. However, if you want that scare to linger - to run deeper and last longer - you need more. You need your audience to feel an emotional connection with your characters (you scare because you care) and you also need to create an effective sense of creeping dread.
Earlier, I described The Orphange as a "quiet" horror film. Quiet horror is built on atmosphere and mood, understated psychological tension and the terror found in what is not quite stated, but that is, instead, implied. Something that is not quite seen, but you fear is present nonetheless.
“One of the things people complained about when they first read the script was that it was not scary enough,” Sánchez recalls in a fascinating 2007 interview with Michael Gingold for Fangoria. “I usually don’t like that in a film - those cheap frights - because they’re very easy. I believe the two big moments like that in The Orphanage work because they’re 'hidden'. Your attention is directed toward something else, and then in the middle of that comes the jump.
"Actually, when Juan Antonio [director J. A. Bayona] kind of forced me to write those scenes, I was like, 'Okay, I’m gonna do it, but I don’t think they’re gonna work'. Then, when I finally saw the film at a screening for the first time, and saw the whole audience jump at once, I was like, 'Okay, I was wrong and you were right'.”
All the script edits, set construction, lighting and sound design in the world would be for nothing without powerful performances from the cast. Belén Rueda is absolutely superb as Laura - this is one of the great performances of horror cinema (or any genre for that matter). Rueda pulls us into this haunting story and does not let us go until the very end of her story.
It was Bayona's idea to narrow the film's focus to Laura's point of view. “Originally, it was more of a classic horror movie, and there was a lot more importance given to what had happened in the orphanage - the crimes, all the horror elements and the investigation," Sánchez explains in the Fangoria interview. "Juan Antonio just said, 'I don’t care about this. What I care about is the mother'. So we sort of forgot all about that other stuff, just gave it minimal importance in the story and reworked the script to delve more into the breakdown of this woman and what it does to the family".
The success of The Orphanage also, of course, depended on a powerful portrayal of Simón. Roger Príncep - Bayona’s first choice for the role - is astonishing. He conveys Simón’s innocence, his limitless imagination and sense of wonder. Crucially, he is also able to express Simón’s anger and frustration.
Throughout The Orphanage, Bayona plays with our perceptions. What is real, what is supernatural - what is, perhaps, only imagined. A first watch of this film (before the final reveal) leaves us disorientated and unsettled. The genius of Bayona's directorial debut is that, even when we know how this story ends, we want to watch The Orphanage again (and again) to see if we can spot the clues that point to the film’s deeply unsettling and heartbreaking conclusion.