It’s always a treat when a horror movie is able to scare on a psychologically creepy level rather than through shock, gore and/or stingers (the loud sounds that usually accompany things jumping at your face in movies). That’s not to say that those conventions aren’t present in The Orphanage, it’s just that they’re used more for color, rather than for the pattern of the film. If a stylish horror movie is what you’re looking for, this is the film to let yourself be scared by.
The Orphanage has a classic setup. A husband and wife, Laura (Belén Rueda), move into a creepy old house with their adopted son, Simón. The house is where Laura once lived as an orphan with other children who had special needs. Laura’s plan is to restore the orphanage into a modern care facility for children with Down Syndrome. Her adopted son is also a special needs case, as he is afflicted with HIV. Supernatural events occur when Laura and Simón visit a beach cave where a former orphan drowned and whose spirit follows them home. From there, Simón mysteriously disappears and it’s up to Laura to face unbelievable fears in order to find him.
The reason the horror is so excellent in this film is because it preys on the natural psychological fears of the average person. First and foremost, it focuses on children. Kids are scary because they have no self-control and love to satisfy their curiosity. Adults don’t typically fear children, because adults can control them. But when the children are undead and can’t be managed by conventional methods, then there’s a very scary problem. Think back to the Japanese imports, like The Ring and The Grudge.
There’s also something really creepy about people who wear masks. As human beings, we rely on understanding people’s expressions as a form of communication. When we can’t see someone’s face, it effectively blinds us, which is nearly intolerable.
Sound is also used to good effect. Things creak, crash and go bump in the night. How many times have we attributed these sounds to the house settling while, in the back of our minds, we felt it might be something less innocuous? Most importantly, however, the sound effects don’t overpower you like in other horror movies. Director Juan Antonio Bayona uses the fear of sight unseen to really get your imagination going. At one point, a medium is hired to communicate with the possible spirits in the house. As the characters watch her go into her trance and explore the home, the closed circuit video feeds start going out and all we’re left with is audio. When the medium falls silent and the video feed slowly comes back, the anticipation to see what gory fate has befallen her is deliciously acute. It’s actually quite fun to be part of the fear rather than just be scared by it.
I think what really elevates the film to the top of its genre is the fullness of Laura’s character. She is a strong woman and though she may be afraid, she is not motivated out of fear. Instead, it’s her mother’s connection to Simón to pushes her forward and ultimately makes her dramatic conflict that much more satisfying. The Orphanage is definitely a must-see for any fan of horror, suspense or old fashioned ghost stories.