On the twentieth day of Halloween, a bucket of my own tears gave to me : El Orfanato, (J.A. Bayona, 2007)
Today’s ectoplasmic entry on the list hails from Spain, from director J.A. Bayona and guided by Guillermo del Toro.
Plots for days:
Laura (Belen Rueda), her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and her adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) move into the building that once housed the Good Shepherd Orphanage, where Laura lived before being adopted. Intending to restore the grounds and re-open the building for special-needs children, Laura tries to recapture the warmth she once felt for this place. Simon begins to have contact with a mysterious imaginary friend named Tomas, who reveals to Simon that he is not only adopted, but ill (HIV positive). Simon’s relationship with Laura and Carlos sours, and during an event Laura hosts for possible future residents of the house, Simon disappears. Months pass, and Laura is still unable to find any trace of her son. Desperate to find her child, Laura realizes she’s going to have to contact the ones who know the grounds the best: the resident spirits of the orphanage.
You’re gonna need tissues for this one.
El Orfanato is the perfect example of how powerful horror can be. While I’m all for getting the shit scared out of me, I think the horror genre has the potential to dig deeper than just scares. This is a horror movie, make no mistake- but one that has a beauty and a power to it beyond the spooks it provides. It’s a tapestry of a living memory, of hope and grief and horror and the paranormal all wrapped up in one.
El Orfanato is a portrait of a parent’s grief: Simon’s disappearance pushes Laura and Carlos to the very edge, and there is no romanticism to their suffering, nothing “spooky”. There’s once scene that sticks out in my mind : Laura and Carlos are in a group therapy session with other parents who have lost children. Laura expresses seeing things in the house since Simon disappeared, hinting at the supernatural. With knowing smiles, other parents in the group describe seeing their children after their deaths, and the line between paranormal activity and powerful grief blurs. While “delusion-versus-actual ghosts” is an old trope, it’s bitterly poignant in El Orfanato. While the orphanage is of course truly haunted, the tension between grief and ghosts (of both the literal and figurative kind) is a powerful one. Laura is grasping at straws to a certain extent, in total denial that her son may not ever be found. The possibility of the paranormal is an escape route, another open door.
Belen Rueda is the soul of El Orfanato, and plays Laura with bruising passion. Laura’s determination to do whatever it takes to recover Simon is heartbreaking, in both its fury and its desperation. Her grief is “the wound that acts as a knot between two timelines,” and her personal connection with the house is what opens the door between worlds. But unlike in most other films centered on orphanages, Laura remembers the Good Shepherd Orphanage fondly and gratefully, and wanted to continue its legacy. The spirits she encounters are spirits of old friends, not vengeful ghosts. El Orfanato is deeply rooted in Laura’s experiences and memories, and the confluence of grief and physical place.
I’ll discuss the ending under a spoiler cut. It’s about as sad as they come, equal parts tragedy and tender hope. It leaves me bawling every time.
—-SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE FILM—
Laura finds Simon’s body in a deep cellar under the stairs: upset with his mother, Simon went and hid there, but fell down the stairs and died.
Simon is dead, and it had little to do with ghosts. While Simon’s interactions with Tomas and Laura’s reawakening of the orphanage are paranormal, what happened to Simon isn’t. It was an accident, plain and simple. That’s the most awful art of El Orfanato : while it takes a ghost village to bring Laura to the truth, Simon’s death was entirely within the bounds of this world.
Laura decides to end her natural life in response, and enters the world of the orphanage as she knew it to act as the caretaker for the spirits of her friends. She’s the Wendy to the children of Neverland, safe from the terrors of life. It’s horridly sad, but the film ends on a note of peace and hope: Carlos can still feel Laura’s love from the other side.
Uno, dos, tres, Toca la pared
While El Orfanato is certainly a tearjerker, it’s spooky as shit too. There’s a scene with a medium that’s reminiscent of Poltergeist, and it’s beautifully tense. The “toca la pared” sequence (think Red Light Green Light) is one of my favorites in horror, because shadowy children are Creepy ©.
A few warnings, as per usual: keep an eye out for fingernail trauma, harm done against children, and brief depiction of suicide.
But this movie is also beautiful
While El Orfanato isn’t quite as fantastical as work Del Toro helms, his hand is still very clearly visible here. The lyricism and beauty that accompanies the horror of El Orfanato is very typical of Del Toro’s work. The beautiful, richly-appointed house, the focus on children: all very typical del Toro. That said, Bayona still keeps the film grounded in reality, and makes it a story all his own. It’s lyrical, it’s horrifying, it’s sweeping, it’s sad: you get a lot of bang for your buck with this film.
do emotional gymnastics burn calories
If going through the full emotional spectrum counted as cardio, I’d be in model-like shape by this point. El Orfanato is one hell of film that seamlessly weaves in elements of horror, fantasy, and drama to tell a uniquely gorgeous story. I highly recommend this film to anyone who wants a good watch.
Just have a box of tissues nearby.
Featured image source: http://www.filmaffinity.com/es/film245378.html