El Orfanato (The Orphanage, 2007) shows the limits, possibilities and differences between a fairly talented newcomer and a mature craftsman in the genre of horror. Director Guillermo del Toro considered Juan Antonio Bayona (the film's director) so promising a protégé that he lent his name as producer and "presenter" to be displayed prominently over the film's title in theater posters.
The film is hardly original--more of a masala of borrowings from various gothic films like Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) to Jack Clayton's great The Innocents (1961) to Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) to del Toro's own "The Devil's Backbone" (2001). Bayona inherits a tradition Clayton and Wise helped developed, that Amenabar practice with impressive skill: films slow on pacing, and long on atmosphere, with little to no makeup or CGI effects, the chills developed more through suggestion and creeping camera moves than shock cuts and gross prosthetics (though the film does have its small share of them).
Most impressive of all is Bayona's handling of sound--the lack of your standard-issue creepy music score for the most part, and instead a dependence on ambient sound (the grunt of suddenly burdened floorboards, the soft shriek of old door hinges, the exhalation of an uncovered long-hidden passage). Sound is a much neglected and ignored part of the horror film, something one rarely notes or bothers to praise or even complain about, until a particularly inept practitioner comes along (I'm thinking of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" (1999), an otherwise well-made thriller spoiled for the most part by the director's use of obvious sounds to mark "boo!" moments).
I'd say the script is, after the sound and musical cuing, the film's most notable element--Sergio G. Sanchez's script gives us the obvious story (Laura, the mother (Belen Rueda) searching for Simon, her adopted son (Roger Princep), who she assumes was kidnapped by a group of ghostly playmates), and the story behind that, almost Jamesian in its ambiguity (again you see the size of the debt owed to The Innocents): is the mother imagining all this, imagining an elaborate vengeance she feels must be visited upon herself, for surviving where others did not? Is this some kind of power struggle between her and Simon, Simon expressing his anger and disappointment at learning that 1) he's not her real son, and 2) learning he's dying of HIV? And is Laura in hunting relentlessly for Simon working out the guilt she feels for rejecting the boy when he demanded attention at an inconvenient time (to a child no time is ever inconvenient; the crisis is always now, it's always a matter of life and death)?
And what of Carlos, Laura's husband (Fernando Cayo)? The sanest and most resilient--well, maybe less resilient than reasonable I suppose--of the three, he seems to play perfectly supportive husband until the point when he finds himself unable to support her and her obsession anymore. Cayo's role is the easiest to overlook of the three, but he's the touchstone, the standard of normalcy by which we measure how far Laura has allowed herself to be pulled by the tide of her obsession. The pain he feels, talking to her, confronting her, is I think no less great than the pain she feels having lost her son.
It's a good script, with an iron emotional core made up of a mother's need to protect her child, and a child's need to make his dreams and desires heard. It plays on a parent's guilt, not just at neglecting her child, but at actually wounding him with a careless word or gesture; what to the parent might be an outburst of impatience at an unreasonable request may for the young one be an unforgivable affront, a confirmation that he or she is not the center of one's world, an ineradicable feeling of distrust or disaffection one may need a lifetime to correct, if ever.
It's a good script, too good I think for Bayona's impressive if immature abilities. Yes he gets some of it right--I've noted the sound, the conservative effects; might as well throw in his impeccable sense of timing, the languor of a moment made tense and unsettling by the off-kilter detail (a group of children playing with a mute scarecrow towering over them; a trail of footsteps leading not out but deeper into a seaside cave; metal tubes in a small closet, too heavy and huge to be of any conceivable use in there). Then there's his use and staging of children's games-- the treasure hunt, an elaborate, unspoken transaction worked out between two people across years, even across the gulf between life and death; the statue game, where the player must acknowledge that he cannot see (and hence, cannot control) the actions of his or her co-players all the time.
At times, however, Bayona seems to lack the confidence to gracefully work out the script--the subplot of an old lady's accident is too hamfistedly staged and shot, and some of the later scares involve the kind of intrusive sound effects he'd so successfully eschewed so far. That old lady also represents several plot loopholes--what did she think she could accomplish in the garden shed, and why now when she had decades beforehand to do so? How'd she escape attention all those years she was working in the orphanage? Why should she have an accident, and at that precise moment?
Amenabar worked with an equally implausible plot in The Others that, when you think about it, is simpler and apparently less moving than Bayona's; but Amenabar is able to wield visuals much more firmly under the dictates of a personal vision, and one is ultimately seduced by the poetry of his camera moves to pay much attention to any mere inconsistency (it helps that Amenabar had the benefit of directing several of the better thriller/fantasy features to come out in recent years). The skilled craftsman uses poor materials to achieve more, while the relative novice overcompensates by collecting everything he knows and throwing it at the screen with the prayer that something sticks. That way works too--this film scares and entertains, basically--but it's done with so much sweaty exertion there isn't as much fun or pleasure to be had in watching.
First published in Businessworld, 10.3.08