For her inaugural 10YA re-view, AJ Burgin works through the specters of grief, trauma, and loss in J.A. Bayona’s excellent The Orphanage.

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Ten Years Ago: The Orphanage

Or El Orfanato if you’re nasty. And I was.

The Orphanage came out right in the height of my about-to-graduate-college snobbery, when I was tearing through the shelves of Bellingham’s Film is Truth and Seattle’s beloved Scarecrow, looking for niche foreign films I could talk about and then feign exasperation when people didn’t know what I was talking about. I loved Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike, and Guillermo del Toro (not terribly obscure anymore, but again: undergrad snobbery. Read: ignorant snobbery). When I heard that del Toro had just produced an atmospheric horror movie, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, I impatiently waited to snag a (probably totally legally obtained) DVD. I remember loving every moment of it, even when I felt a little ball of nausea and tension building in my gut as I started to guess the outcome. Ten years later, I still remembered it fondly, but much of the minor plot points and scare tactics had faded. The only memory I really had was an incredibly vivid, nearly photographic memory of the climactic mother/son scene (aka “the big reveal”). And then I remember uncontrollably sobbing for the rest of the movie, holding myself in the darkness of my apartment.

Nearly two years before I watched The Orphanage, my six-year-old nephew, Travis, had passed away very unexpectedly. Being the incredibly healthy and mature young adult that I was, I dealt with it by not dealing with it. I felt like my sister and my parents had far more “right” to their grief than I did and was convinced they’d be mad at me if they had to comfort me, because I hadn’t “earned” my grief in some way. What is an aunt’s loss compared to a mother’s, right? So, I buried it as much as I could. Shocking as it may be to some of you, that strategy didn’t work terribly well. Months later, I was having night terrors; I’d wake up to Travis’ cold body in bed next to me. Even once fully awake, I could still feel the clamminess of his hands on mine. Long story short, I got therapy and things improved, but grief has a funny way of sneaking up on you, even years later.

Let’s get back to the movie itself, though. It opens with the sound of buzzing insects and an overcast day at a Spanish orphanage. The orphanage itself is a small but beautiful stone manor by the beach. Despite the grey skies and ominous buzzing, the children in the yard seem to be having a blast playing the world’s creepiest game. A little girl stands facing a tree. She knocks three times while saying, “One, two, three, knock on the wall!” As soon as she finishes her line, she quickly turns around to see the other children behind her, who freeze. It seems the other children can keep advancing on the little girl while her back is to them, but they have to freeze the second she turns around. CREEPY. After a few rounds of this, one of the children eventually reaches her while her back is turned, tags her on the shoulder, and then they all run around all happy and stuff. It’s not the kind of game I ever ever ever want to play, but sure. Go for it. Happy orphanage scene. That little girl is named Laura and this is the day she finds out she’s being adopted.

Years later, Laura returns to the long-closed orphanage with her husband and their young son, Simón, with the intention of re-opening it as a home for “special children” (a storyline that, much like the husband, serves as a very minor and really unnecessary plot device). Simón has imaginary friends that Laura isn’t too worried about, until he gets six new ones shortly after they move into the manor. The main friend is named Tomás and the two young boys meet in a cave. In my experience, this is where all life-long friends meet. Naturally, Simón invites cave-dwelling Tomás to come play at his house and Laura benignly grants permission. And then shit gets weird. And very tense. The Orphanage isn’t terribly original here. The tension builds with creepy drawings of a kid wearing a sack over his face, odd sounds, piles of shells that appear out of nowhere, and standard-fare “mood music” (though it’s all done well and nothing is overwrought). The central play between Simón and his new cave friend is another game, wherein something valuable is taken but clues are left behind to lead one to the stolen item. For Simón, it is his gold coins that are taken. In their place are his baby teeth, which lead to the jar that used to hold those teeth but that now holds sand, which leads to the front yard, which leads to a piece of metal, which leads to a small chapel in the house (obvi), which leads to Russian stacking dolls, which leads to a key, which leads to a locked kitchen drawer, in which he finds HIS COINS (oops and the paperwork that shows he’s adopted and is HIV-positive). It’s a doozy. Soon after, Simón goes missing, after which things definitely get scarier, but Bayona still pulls a lot of punches. The tension mounts and mounts, but there isn’t a lot of release. For me, this is exactly the kind of horror movie I LOVE. There aren’t a lot of apparitions, there isn’t a lot of gore (ok some, and I’ll get to that in a minute), and Laura isn’t some constantly terrified waif. She’s a mother who is desperate to find her son and who is willing to confront fear and doubt to do so.

The fact that there isn’t much gore in the movie is what makes its rare appearance so effective. There are really three scenes for potential gore in the movie. The first is when the masked child (who turns out to be an angry Simón, not a ghost) slams Laura’s fingers in the door. Sure, we see her rip off her fingernail, but the camera doesn’t dwell on it (though my spine seemed to). The second is just a few minutes later, when Laura is running on the beach towards the cave because she thinks she sees Simón there. She falls and cuts her leg open pretty badly, but we barely see it at all. We only know it’s bad because she can’t walk and then ends up in a wheelchair (how she gets around that old manor in the wheelchair is, for me, the film’s greatest mystery, by the way). The third gore moment, however, is perhaps one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie. An old woman, Benigna, is a person of interest in Simón’s disappearance, but the police had been unable to locate her. Six months later, Laura sees her at a busy intersection and calls out to her. Benigna is crossing the street with a stroller, freezes to look at Laura, and then BAM! She’s plowed down by a big van. Now, please bear with me as I dwell on this scene, because I really do think it’s masterful. And then I’m gonna show you a picture. Be ready.

Laura rushes to the van first, as the stroller had been pulled underneath it. She tries to save what she assumes is a baby trapped inside, but instead pulls out a creepy doll that looks just like Simón’s drawing of Tomás. Now she runs over to Benigna, who is totally surrounded by shocked onlookers. Her doctor husband (no one cares what his name is, but it’s Carlos) is doing CPR, but the onlookers are blocking Laura’s (and the camera’s) view of her. All we see is Carlos is doing chest compressions. He then bends over to give her mouth-to-mouth, which we also can’t see. He sits up to look at Laura and shake her head, to signal that she’s dead, and HIS FACE IS COVERED IN FREAKING BLOOD. But that’s not all. Nope. As Laura gets closer, someone quickly and gently places a sweater over Benigna’s face, but Laura sees a familiar-looking whistle around her neck. As she goes to touch it, Benigna grabs her wrist (maybe the movie’s first jump-worthy moment), they pull the sweater off her face, and Benigna is looking at Laura. Y’all. This is the face that Laura sees:

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Ok, so actually the face is momentarily alive and staring right at her and terrifying, but that screen shot has Laura’s hand, holding the whistle, covering that jaw. And you gotta see that jaw. This is by far the most graphic scene in the whole movie, which is why it’s so effective. Because Bayona has had so many other opportunities to rub viewers’ faces in gore and refused to, you get used to that kind of withholding and, as such, get really caught off guard by this one. The rarity of these scenes is precisely what allows the delivery of any real horror payload. As viewers, we aren’t overwhelmed with gag scares and traditional shocks. In fact, the withholding makes us crave them. Everything builds to such a gradual head that when we finally do get a jolt to the system, the satisfaction is pretty, well, satisfying.

Benigna’s death yields Part 1 of “the big reveal,” the mystery of Tomás and the other five imaginary friends. As it turns out, Benigna worked at the orphanage when Laura was there. She had a secret son, Tomás, who was born deformed and “had to” wear a sack over his face. One day, he and the other five kids go down to the beach cave. The other kids convince him to take off his sack and then they take it and run out, probably thinking they’ll get him to come outside without it. Except he doesn’t. Instead, the tide rolls in and Tomás drowns inside the cave. In an act of revenge, Benigna poisons the five children and they all die in agony. Since then, they’ve just been doing what all ghost children do: looking for people to play with them and to take care of them.

Eventually, Laura figures out that Simón is part of the “Let’s take something precious from you” game they’d played with Simón’s coins. Her last clue is a doorknob, but she can’t figure out what it goes to and starts to kind of lose it. The kids won’t talk to her or show themselves to her so…she plays that other creepy game from the beginning of the movie. Here, let me just copy and paste the stream-of-consciousness notes I was taking during my re-watch:

Gross. She’s playing that terrible game. From the beginning of the movie. Camera only shows her banging. Then it goes over her shoulder with her. This game is so fucking suspenseful. Three times now and nada. Fourth time, oh hello creepy child. Two more and so many children. They tag her and now she’s chasing them. One little girl runs into that utility closet. And vanishes. CLEAN OUT THAT FUCKING CLOSET, YO.

Laura realizes her doorknob matches the one on the closet, finds a little hole in the back, which reveals a secret door that had been wallpapered over. And here we get Part 2 of “the big reveal,” exactly as I’d remembered it. I was dreading this scene but also feeling a bit more prepared 10 years later. She opens the door, goes down the creepy stairs, into the creepy room that is clearly where Tomás lived, and finds Simón asleep in the bed. Cool? Cool. Except she picks him up, all bundled in a blanket, holds him close, and tells him to squeeze his eyes shut while remembering that his imaginary friends aren’t real. Everything quiets down, all seems good, and she slowly releases Simón to the floor…except that now it’s just an unfurling of the empty blanket. So, where’s Simón? Pan to the floor next to the stairs. You know, the stairs that have the broken railing? Yep. It’s a tiny decomposing body, covered in flies (remember the buzzing insect noises at the beginning of the movie? There’s lots of nice book-ending in this movie). This is where Laura lovingly cradles Simón’s dead body. This is also where I started crying uncontrollably ten years ago, remembering a little too well how a dead child’s body feels.

Grief is a funny thing. Sure, I didn’t sob while watching the movie this time. I even got to see the rather nice ending after she finds his dead body (I say “nice,” but she gets to stay with him and other kids because she kills herself). Watching it through this time, it felt more like I was enjoying a movie again. Knowing what it pulls out of me, I was also more able to pay attention to the way the movie itself plays with grief and trauma, how it situates loss as a kind of haunting. Again, it’s not terribly original, but it remains powerful. A medium that Laura consults earlier in the film tells her, “When something terrible happens, sometimes it leaves a trace, a wound that acts as a knot between two time lines. It’s like an echo repeated over and over waiting to be heard. Like a scar or a pinch that begs for a caress to relieve it.” We want that relief of tension and of pain, but sometimes we also want to play with it, to encourage the ache. That’s certainly true with dramatic tension and suspense in films, especially for people (like me) who love horror. With lived trauma, perhaps playing with that scar reminds us of the time before the loss, of the time spent with the person or people we lost. While the loss of a loved one is awful and we don’t want to re-live the loss itself, it isn’t the kind of thing we want to forget. To forget the trauma would be to forget the love we felt in the first place. So yeah. Grief is funny. The Orphanage didn’t make me cry the second time through, but somehow writing about it did.

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