Feb 18, 2008

The Orphanage

Scary movies. Isn't this a great concept or what? Movies can make you laugh, cry, swoon, but the ones designed to scare the living daylights out of you, I have a special fondness for those. The pioneers of film figured this out from the very beginning: ghosts and mysterious night creatures and unexplainable evil are made for celluloid (the films of Lon Chaney, Nosferatu, etc).
Why do we love to sit in a dark room and be scared? It's another version of telling scary stories around the campfire -- keeps you on your toes. It's a little catharsis. You keep saying "it's only a movie", but you surrender and let your heart pound. A little act of mini bravery.
I do not like slasher films; I like classic scary stuff, done with a minimum of special effects, if possible. Movies that are big on atmosphere and can sustain a feeling of suspense and dread until it is intolerable. Or movies that just really give you the chills.
The Orphanage is one such film. It basically lays out every old fashioned trick in the book and it works like a charm. Every creaking door, every bump in the night, every swaying window, every door at the end of a corridor, completely over the top music (sometimes a bit much), ominous camera moves, it all works.
The Orphanage is a Spanish film produced by Guillermo Del Toro, and directed with great aplomb by J.A. Bayona. The screenplay is pretty solid. Yes, there are moments when you go, "why would a mother let a child go into a cave alone?", or "why does she insist on staying by herself in a house full of ghosts"? but the movie sets up the premise well enough that it gives you the answers.
A lovely family of three moves into a former orphanage and their adopted child plays with the ghost children, who are horribly unhappy. Bayona sets up the big horrible jolts with great precision, and they scare the hell out of you, because miraculously, even though everything is overtelegraphed, when they come, you are not quite ready for them. I love when that happens! He also is good with atmosphere, creating a place in which the things that are left behind are not in and of themselves creepy, but of course they are. There are also creepy people in this world, so the creepy is not only relegated to the beyond. The whole aesthetic of the old uniforms of an orphanage, old dolls, old masks, children's drawings, take an ominous, disturbing form. And as in any good ghost story, you empathize with the plight of the lost souls, but what disturbs you is that they don't repay your goodness in kind. They keep scaring you! They don't play by the same rules as the living. They don't mean ill, but they can't help it. Their desperation has an unhinged tenor.
Bayona uses every old and every new cliche in the book. So besides the creaking and bumping and slamming doors, there is a very suspenseful sequence with a medium (Geraldine Chaplin, perfect), which is done entirely through video monitors. One of the new tropes of horror (I believe thanks to Japanese films like Ringu and The Eye) is the video screen going blank and the weird distorted sound and imagery that comes from a screen, our newfangled conduit to the beyond. This too works like a charm. Mexican fans will be delighted to see Edgar Vivar (aka Ñoño, from El Chavo del 8, the longest running show in Mexican and probably Spanish speaking TV) make an appearance as a paranormal expert. This is a nod from Del Toro, and it is interesting since this obese actor was famous for playing a child. Kinda creepy.
The good news is I kept sinking back into my seat and protecting myself from the movie with my coat.
The bad news is that this movie has the CHEESIEST, MOST CORNBALL ENDING EVER TO GRACE A HORROR FILM. This is unforgiveable, this fucking happy ending in the beyond.
I suspect that the problem is that Guillermo del Toro is too nice (to judge from his other movies, he also tends towards the overly cheesy, like the overwrought title sequence in this one, which telegraphs too much). You cannot be too nice in a horror story. You ruin it. Had the film ended where it should end (about 5 minutes before the end), it would have been a perfect Gothic with a satisfying, creepy, sad ending. It would have left us still disturbed about the misery of those in the beyond. I would have gone home in fear of every weird noise coming from behind my walls, which is what every horror filmmaker should desire. There would still have been a sense of redress, which is one of the tropes of horror (when you are not thinking sequel). But what good are happy ghosts!? It's like betraying your own movie.

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