October Horrorshow: The Orphanage

I love the American movie business sometimes. If there’s a trailer where cast members have no dialogue other than shouting someone’s name, it’s a dead giveaway the film has subtitles. Can’t show any in the trailer, because movie companies think we’re stupid.

I have to be honest. Sometimes when watching films, it feels as if there is nothing new happening onscreen. Action films, drama, thillers, sci-fi, horror, etc. It can all take on a distinct sheen of sameness. Take ghost films. I’ve seen more than a few of them, and if the plot involves a wife, husband, and a child or children, then there are a few things a viewer can expect. First, the child will all of a sudden have a couple of ‘imaginary’ friends to play with. This causes looks of concern from the parents, but little more. Of course, out here on the other side of the screen, we know the little tyke’s imagination hasn’t just been running wild. Rather, they’ve been seeing ghosts.

Following the tidy announcement that our onscreen family unit is not alone in their dream home, the ghosts begin playing little tricks. Nothing all that scary, but nicely unsettling to set up some atmosphere. Next, something dramatic will happen, along the lines of the child disappearing or other harm coming to them in some way. The next act is spent with mom and dad growing more frantic as strange happenings continue to escalate, with mom being the one to go all in with belief in the supernatural. Dad either isn’t convinced yet, or just has his mind blown too far out of balance to truly grasp the situation.

Eventually, some sort of paranormal investigative team is called in from a local university, because institutes of higher learning all seem to have post-graduate programs in ghost hunting. There’s always a psychic or medium with them who can communicate with the dead, and figure out the spiritual goings-on. The psychic is always, without fail, a middle-aged woman with a wardrobe just shy of being bought at a gypsy flea market. Now dad is really holding it in, even in films where, by this point, he’s seen a ghost walk out into the hallway and flip him the bird. The psychic does her thing, mom revels in the idea that someone out there believes, understands, what her and her family have been going through, and spends the rest of the film walking an edge between hysterics and orgasmic ecstasy.

But not dad. He’s the rational one, and all this psychic poppycock isn’t going to get Carol Anne back. (There’s the big lesson of these films. Rational, scientific minds belong solely to the men in the house, but they’re invariably wrong. It’s the irrational, emotional mess that is woman that is capable of embracing the unknown and is willing to believe, and she’s always right. How does this work? I don’t know, but it works enough so that films keep doing it, and doing it, and doing it...)

Dad either bails at this point, fed up with his wife and his wedding vows, or sticks it out until the end with that look of skepticism never, ever leaving his face. The ghosts aren’t just shooting him obscene hand gestures by this point. They might be trying to kill him. What does it take to end this man’s doubt? Oh, and the psychic and her backup team of pseudo-scientists...you know, the experts? Chances are, they’re long gone, apparently having better things to do than stay and work through what has to be the single most extreme and provable supernatural phenomenon that anyone, anywhere, has ever witnessed. The equivalent in real life would have been Galileo packing up the telescope after he caught a glimpse of just one of the Jovian moons.

Why do these people leave? Why does the family let them? Well, we know why dad does...because he’s a close-minded dick. But mom should be screaming for them to stay and help. Yet she doesn’t. She gathers in a few words of wisdom from the psychic and is left on her own. You can almost hear the tires squeal as the ghost hunters jet.

Finally, denouement. There could have been a false ending by this point, so watch out. But the quick and dirty of it is that mom, and always mom, confronts the evil presence in the house, and vanquishes it (while saving her child, if the plot needs such resolution). Maybe she dies, maybe she doesn’t. If she does, dad is always there at the end with a look of regret on his face and some flowers for her grave.

Go ahead, download a bunch of ghost flicks from iTunes or Netflix and see how many of them follow the plotline outlined above with only minor variation.

And that’s The Orphanage, the 2007 ghost film from Spain. This film was every bit as predictable as an oncoming train on a hundred miles of arrow-straight track, horns a-blazing. It telegraphed almost all of its punches, with little quirks to try and keep things original. And this makes me want to pull my hair out, because The Orphanage is a good film.

Directed by J.A. Bayona and produced by Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage was the film Spain sent to the Academy Awards for consideration that year. So it’s no slouch of a film. The direction is tight, the production is quality, the performances are good, and even the story is good. There’s just nothing at all new about it.

The Orphanage is the story of Laura (BelĂ©n Rueda), a mom who, with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), has purchased the shuttered orphanage where she spent much of her childhood, with the intention of turning it into a home for disabled children. Not long after moving in, her son makes some imaginary friends that turn out to be ghosts. After he disappears mysteriously, Laura spends the rest of the film dodging ghosts and trying to find her son. I don’t need to get into the plot any more deeply at this point, do I?

Anyway, the film has a nice creepy atmosphere to it, and it manages to maintain tension throughout, something not many ghost films manage to do. Usually the general rule is, as the ghostly events continue to ratchet up during the film, there’s a correlating decrease in scary, but not here. The Orphanage is far too subtle for the shenanigans that plague other ghost films. There is no reliance on big-time CGI as a substitute for fright, and a viewer never grows accustomed to the supernatural events. The film’s one and only crime is a steadfast adherence to cinematic tropes that haven’t been original in decades. But it does offer enough of its own unique take on things to set up a pretty good ending.

Like many foreign box office successes, an American remake is in the works. Mr. Bayona has his own thoughts on that, saying about an American remake, “The Americans have all the money in the world but can’t do anything, while we can do whatever we want but don’t have the money...The American industry doesn’t take chances, that’s why they make remakes of movies that were already big hits.” That’s rich, coming from a guy who basically remade Poltergeist. On behalf of the American movie-going public, I have this to say to Mr. Bayona: blow me.

Still, good movie. And he’s right to be concerned. Hollywood probably will fuck up his movie. But he has a lot of balls to pretend he captured a whiff of originality in his film.