If there's a single genre in film that I've taken every opportunity to bash then it's the supernatural thriller. I don't think I'm without just cause, though.
Ever since "The Sixth Sense" showed up in 1999, one PG-13 rated so-called "horror" film has opened after the other, each one more pathetic and ridiculous than the last. Just this last weekend a new low was reached with "One Missed Call," a movie featuring haunted cell phones. You get a call and then you die. This first film of the year also holds the distinction of an absolute 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes - 62 solid negative reviews. I hope I get that call before my fiancée forces me to see "Meet the Spartans" - the sequel to last year's "Epic Movie" - in a couple weeks.
And so it's a thrill when a film comes along that rejuvenates the genre from all the second rate imitators that have so sullied it. "The Orphanage," or "El Orfanato" as it's known in its native Spain, is a deeply effective, involving ghost story. First-time director Juan Antonio Bayona injects drama and deep emotions to produce a film that not only scares but ultimately devastates.
The orphanage of the title refers to the childhood home of Laura (Belen Rueda.) It's an old, almost gothic building on the coast, near the Beach where a lighthouse stands. Decades after she once lived in the house with a half dozen other orphans, Laura has returned with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their adopted, HIV-positive son Simón. It is the ambition of Carlos and Laura to reopen the orphanage for other sick or disabled children.
Upon moving into the house Simón is forced to resort to his imagination for playmates. He concocts a whole host of invisible friends with whom to play elaborate games. Coincidentally, the number of friends whom he creates - and the names they possess - are identical to the children that once lived in the orphanage.
It's at a party for prospective future residents of the orphanage that the unthinkable happens. Simón disappears. Initially suspicion is directed toward a mysterious woman who had appeared the previous day at the orphanage claiming to be a social worker. Gradually, as Laura grows more and more desperate - perhaps mad - for the truth in the disappearance of her child, she begins to consider supernatural answers. She begins investigating what happened at the orphanage in the years after she left and starts to question whether Simón's invisible playmates could have actually been the ghosts of her former friends.
The film has been favorably compared to Guillermo Del Toro's 2006 masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth." The similarities are not superficial, especially when it's noted that Del Toro was one of the producers. While the films are very different - especially visually - they share a similar soul. In many ways "The Orphanage" could be thought of as the younger sister to "Pan's Labyrinth," a smaller, quieter creature of the same blood. At the heart of both films is an elegant, meaningful exploration of childhood and imagination. Both also tease us with ambiguity, refusing to do what their distant American relatives do. In most Hollywood supernatural thrillers there's little question of the reality of the paranormal elements. Insert here simplistic, somewhat offensive, only half-true generalization about American audiences' inability to appreciate and accept uncertainty in comparison to more sophisticated Europeans. How much of what happens in "The Orphanage" and "Pan's Labyrinth" is physically real versus just in the protagonists' heads?
The result of walking this line of complexity is an ending that could not be more perfect. Just as a wrong ending can ruin a film, transforming mediocrity into toxicity - don't even think of renting the recently-released "Mr. Woodcock" - the right ending can make a good film a great one. The way "The Orphanage" concludes like a James Wright poem where the last line suddenly ignites the entire poem, casting the experience into an entirely different light.
The end of the story on "The Orphanage" is one of mixed blessings. The movie is suffering - or perhaps being blessed, it depends on one's perspective - the same fate as most successful foreign supernatural thrillers. It's being remade in an English-language version. That's how we got haunted cell phone movie, haunted videotape movie ("The Ring") and haunted internet movie ("Pulse.")
The remake does have a fighting chance, though. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Del Toro is to produce. Hopefully he'll be able to exert enough influence so that the film can maintain all that's great about the original while bringing it to a larger audience.