Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) — written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by JA Bayona, and produced by Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) — is the only one that I would caution adults not to allow children to watch. As in many of del Toro’s other films, there is a strong connection between fairy tales and horror, but I’m not talking about the sanitized versions of fairy tales that most children are now familiar with. If children, especially those under age 10, watch this film with you, they may be quite distressed. By the time you discover why young children should not watch The Orphanage, it’ll be too late: they’ll probably be seriously upset by this film, if not actually traumatized, so be warned. The Orphanage is R-rated for a reason, and there are no special effects, bad language, or graphic violence to warrant the rating: the mature rating comes purely in the content of the story itself.
Laura (Belén Rueda) spent many of her formative years in an orphanage, where she loved, and was loved by, the other children. Despite her having grown up without parents, Laura she remembers being happy in that orphanage.
In an attempt to “pay back” society for her secure and relatively happy childhood, she purchases the old home and decides to take in special needs children.
With Laura are her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), who’s an MD, and their son Simón (Roger Princep), who doesn’t know that he’s adopted nor that he’s seriously ill (he’s HIV-positive).
Simón already has a couple of imaginary friends, but he makes a few new imaginary friends at the orphanage-now-home. This starts to disturb his parents, who aren’t sure that he’s not just trying to get more attention at a time when their focus is going to be divided among the new resident children, all of whom will have special needs.
On the day of the party to welcome the special needs children who will be living at the orphanage, Mama Laura sees a strange, hooded figure, and she thinks it is Simón, trying to get attention.
When the strange figure then attacks her, Laura is frightened, not only for herself but for Simón, who goes missing on the same day.
And Laura’s life deteriorates from there.
Laura becomes a sort of detective, trying to discover what might have happened to her son. She also invites a psychic (Geraldine Chaplin) to visit the orphanage in an attempt to locate the missing Simón.
Though her husband and other grieving parents who have lost children attempt to convince Laura that Simón is dead, rather than merely missing, she refuses to give up hope. She travels all around the area looking for her son. When husband Carlos suggests they leave the scene of their tragic loss, Laura insists they remain at the orphanage, if only because it was the last place anyone saw her son.
Laura then decides that the mysterious hooded figure she saw on the day Simón disappeared must have been a ghost. She is determined to make contact with any ghosts who might be at the orphanage, to ask them for help locating her son.
Some reviewers of the film complained that the ghosts were a minor part of the story, and I have to admit that they are, but I found that a strength of the film rather than a weakness. The Orphanage is about loss and grieving, about guilt and hope. It’s about parents and children, husbands and wives. It’s about how tragedy can forever change everything in our lives, and how some people simply cannot live with the devastating pain of irreparable loss.
It is not a film for young children: you will just have to trust me on this.
In Spanish with English subtitles, The Orphanage is an intense and excruciating psychological drama, masking itself as a ghost story. Yes, there are some ghosts, but that is not why this is a powerful and memorable film.
Winner of 14 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards) and winner of 8, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, The Orphanage is available for rent for $2.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from Vudu.