Hello, everyone! Yesterday I re-watched The Orphanage for the fifth time. It’s taken me several viewings to understand the nuances of the plot and the significance of the movie’s symbolism, but I think that this time, I get it. The movie doesn’t scare me anymore (few horror movies do after the fifth re-watch) but that doesn’t mean I forget how much it terrified me the first time I watched it, before I really got to understand it. Bear in mind that The Orphanage is a horror movie, but it’s so much more than that. It is also a story about loss, tragedy, and family. It’s like The Godfather of horror movies!
Plot synopsis: Laura, Carlos, and their adopted son Simon move into an old orphanage on the coast of Spain. Having once lived happily as an orphan in the building, Laura decides to transform it into a home for special needs children. Before the children arrive, Simon grows restless and worries Laura with his stories of imaginary friends who want him to stay at the orphanage and never grow old. They play games with him, including creating an elaborate treasure hunt that leads Simon to his hidden adoption papers that inform him of his HIV status. During a welcome party the next day, Simon and Laura argue about the legitimacy of Simon’s imaginary friends. Simon wants to show Laura his friend Tomas’ secret house, but Laura refuses. Angered, Simon disappears. Laura tries to find him, but is attacked by a mysterious child wearing a sack over his head. She runs to the caves nearby their house, convinced that Simon is hiding there, but is hindered by the rising tide. After finding the caves empty, the police presume that Simon has been kidnapped.
For the next sixth months, Laura and Carlos search for their son. But their search is fruitless. Desperate, Laura enlists the help of a medium and tries to contact any dead souls that might be keeping Simon away from her. It is then she learns about the gruesome fate of her former friends in the orphanage. To get her “treasure” back, she must learn the truth about the masked child Tomas, and discover what really happened to her son.
My take (SPOILERS): The Orphanage isn’t a “traditional” horror movie. There are few jump scares. The paranormal elements are light and not particularly malicious. The crux of the movie’s plot involves not supernatural evil, but simple human error. However, the meat of the movie is unnerving to the core. Losing one’s child is a parent’s greatest fear, so seeing it play out, beat by beat on the isolated Spanish seaside, is the stuff that nightmares are made of.
The first fifteen minutes of the movie are almost devoid of horror or the paranormal. Aside from one eerie scene where Simon “meets” his invisible friend in the seaside caves, there is no mention of ghosts. But once Tomas is introduced, the tone of the movie shifts from idyllic to heart-pounding fear. My favorite scene is when the score called “Un dia de fiesta” bursts into the scene. When Laura realizes that Simon is missing, she goes crazy, tearing off the masks of random children, screaming for her husband, screaming for Simon. Then she runs screaming down the beach towards the cave, struggling against the incoming high tide, running so carelessly that she breaks her leg. With the waves crashing, and the music swelling, and Laura screaming, the scene is so full of emotion that it’s stressful to watch. I can’t find the exact scene, but here is the score, skip to number 5. It gets crazy around 3:30, but listen to the whole song for the full experience.
After that scene, the movie is no longer joyful. Every scene is heavy with grief and desperation. It’s sad to see the marriage between Carlos and Laura fray under the weight of losing their son. The film captures the difficulties that arise from coping with grief. Carlos believes that only the police can find Simon, but Laura is convinced that the ghosts of the orphanage have something to do with it. Whether she is right is up to interpretation, but I believe that the ghosts did have something to do with Simon’s disappearance, though they weren’t completely responsible. To talk further, I’m going to address some SPOILERS, so if you don’t want to read them, skip to my final consensus.
There is parallelism between the beginning and end of the movie. Both feature treasure hunts and both feature the creepy 1,2,3 knock-knock on the door game. Both of the treasure hunts lead to the “hunter” finding what they treasured, but something else too. In the first case, Simon finds his missing coins, and the papers that that tell him he’s an HIV positive adopted child. In the second treasure hunt, Laura finds her son, but he is dead, and it is partially her fault. Simon’s disappearance is a mystery throughout the movie and it’s resolution is a tragic punch to the gut. The genius of El Orfanato is that Simon’s death can’t be blamed on ghosts or the supernatural. The night of Simon’s disappearance, Laura hears a horrible knocking on the wall and then a tremendous crash. She is certain that it is ghosts haunting her house. This belief seems to be confirmed by Tomas’ appearance in her room and the appearance of the ghosts during the knock-knock game. We want to believe that it is the ghosts at fault for Simon’s death, that it is the ghosts who have arranged this great mystery. But that’s not the ending that the movie is aiming for. When Laura finds Simon, she finds him in a hidden basement, having fallen to his death on the night of his disappearance and broken his neck. The banging she heard was his, the crash was his too. And the kicker is that he might have escaped from the basement, had not Laura, crazed in an attempt to find him, blocked the door with metal posts.
Without the ghosts, El Orfanato could be an amazing tragedy. But I think the ghosts add something more to the film. For instance, though the ghosts seem to be malicious, the end reveals them to be children haunted by their deaths. It is debatable whether Tomas lured Simon into the basement, knowing that he would die, or if Simon found his way there himself, but even if it was an act of deceit, Tomas is still a child, who should be forgiven. The film presents an interesting cycle of young death. Tomas, accidentally left to drown by his friends, gets his vengeance when his mother poisons them to death. Then Tomas lures Simon into the basement, where he too dies before he can grow up. Laura ultimately decides to die herself and stay with the children as their eternal caregiver, and in a way that symbolizes her forgiving them for the hand they played in her son’s death. I’m not sure what J.A Bayona is implying with this message. Is he saying that we should forgive the wrongdoings of these children? Or is he using their death as a greater metaphor for absolution and moving on? If I think of what would have happened had Laura left the house, it would be a different story. She and Carlos might have divorced, or maybe they would have eventually adopted another child. But because she stayed, she helped the poor souls of those children find peace and found her dead son. And she died, too. I don’t really know what he was trying to say, but I do know that it’s far more moving than the average ghost horror movie. It’s similar to The Others in that way, as both use ghosts as ways of dealing with the concept of death.
Final Consensus: The Orphanage is a stunning movie that can be simultaneously described as a drama, a tragedy, and a horror movie. The film will have you pondering its ending long after the credits roll. And though it’s not as relentlessly focused on horror as a movie like The Conjuring, there are enough creepy, unnerving scenes to have you covering your eyes. I recommend watching this movie at night, and then watching it again the next morning. Only then will you understand its brilliance.