It's a curious fact that modern horror films almost invariably revolve around the death of teenagers. Perhaps that's because adolescents, who are the target demographic, tend to be wrapped up in themselves and their peers, and seeing representatives of other age groups dismembered, decapitated and gouged about just doesn't interest them as much. But as any parent knows, the real horror is the death of children, and the horror stories that have stood the test of time have exploited that fact: the child killed by the monster in Frankenstein, the infant victims of bloodsucking Lucy Westenra in Dracula, poor little Miles in The Turn of the Screw, the narrator's dead daughter in The Woman in Black...
The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona's first feature film, is explicitly an inheritor of that older tradition; and I suspect that it, too, will endure. The setting is, naturally, a big old house – set on its own amid trees, near the sea. This was once an orphanage, where Laura spent a happy childhood before being adopted. Thirty years later, she and her doctor husband return, intending to turn it into a home for handicapped children, who will be loved and cared for as she and her friends were. With them, they bring their adored son, Simon.
Simon has always had imaginary friends: so Laura (Belen Rueda, drawn and beautiful) isn't too worried when he introduces a few more, including Tomas, who has a little house and loves to set treasure hunts, using stolen items – sea shells, sweet-wrappers – as clues.
But soon, small things start to make Laura uneasy – a visit from a mysterious old woman, bumps in the night, a sense that Simon is getting a little too involved with these new friends. And then, at a party to welcome the children who are going to be living in the house, Laura encounters an enigmatic figure – a wheezing, snuffling child in a sacking mask, wearing a smock embroidered with the name "Tomas", who assaults her and locks her in the bathroom. When she emerges, both snuffling child and Simon have vanished without a trace.
This is all very old-fashioned, in the best possible sense. But Bayona and his scriptwriter, Sergio G Sanchez, have woven some newfangled elements in to this fabric, without ever compromising that sense of tradition. The thing that made the death of children so very frightening for our ancestors was the fact that it seemed so possible, even imminent: every child stood at death's door, ready to be snatched off by tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, polio... Our children feel safer now, but not always: Simon (who is adopted) was born HIV-positive. One of the film's most shocking moments comes when, in a row with Laura, he screams that he is like those other children who live in the house – motherless, and going to die.
Watch the trailer for 'The Orphanage'
There are other contemporary elements: the mysterious old woman who claims to be a social worker, but isn't; when Simon disappears, Laura and her husband hold news conferences, put up posters, launch a website. They consult a medium (Geraldine Chaplin – something of a casting coup: her extreme fragility implies, without effort, that the barriers between the living and the dead are not quite as sturdy as we might hope). Her attempts to contact the house's unseen inhabitants involves all the paraphernalia of paranormal "science" – video links, tape-recorders, oscilloscopes.
That scene is haunted by the wailing of children, a grief rising up from the past to overwhelm the present. And that is true, in some ways, of the whole film, which is haunted by echoes of other stories, other griefs. One of Rudyard Kipling's most mysterious and touching stories, "They", has the narrator stumbling across a lonely house where children play in the garden, but shrink away when he approaches: it is only at the end of the story that he discovers they are ghosts, and it is only because he has lost a child himself that he can see them. (Kipling's favourite child, Josephine, had died aged six.) I'd be surprised if Sanchez hadn't read that one.
And as Laura becomes more obsessive in her hunt for Simon, convinced against all reason that he is still, somehow, somewhere, alive, I remembered the most wrenching of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, "Songs on the Death of Children". It begins: "I often think they have only gone out..." (Mahler hadn't lost any children at that point: his daughter Maria died a few years later, aged four.)
More brutal resonances intrude, though. While the film trades mostly in ambiguity, or an uncertainty about what is real and what is in Laura's head – so that it is less a horror film, perhaps, than an unease film, or an anxiety film – it does have a couple of moments of outright shock. One of these is far from supernatural – a traffic accident, which is followed by a genuinely gruesome, lingering glimpse of a smashed face; but aficionados will note that this gaping grotesque bears a strong resemblance to the "reaper" vampires in Blade II, which was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who produced this film. It's not hard to detect the influence of del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, as well, in the way that Laura flirts with another world, and her gradual embrace of the prospect of death, which she believes will unite her with her son. The Orphanage doesn't have the visual éclat of Pan's Labyrinth – nothing like the eyeless ogre to give you nightmares. Instead, it teases out the nightmares you already have, and gives them a new, rather too believable form. Those who get their kicks from the sadism of the Saw franchise, or exploitative junk like Black Christmas, may find it a little tame; others may enjoy a film that rescues horror as an emotion for grown-ups.
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