Friday, December 23, 2011

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007)
SPAIN/ MEXICO --- horror

Dir: J.A. Bayona

The ghost story goes back countless centuries and throughout nearly all cultures. But the one mainstay in the genre that has successfully worked on audiences is a woman in an old dark house. This particularly goes back to our psychological fears of the dark and the unknown, and using a female gets more empathy than a male. It is refreshing to see new takes on this timeless fright fest, even if it does seem all too familiar. "El Orfanato" explores the sub genre one more time, with the added depth of the indestructible bond of love between a mother and her child.

Laura returns to her childhood home at the seaside Good Shepherd Orphanage. With her husband Carlos and their imaginative son Simon staying with her, they plan to have more special needs children stay with them in their new home. They have been keeping a secret from Simon, who is actually their adopted child and is HIV positive; unbeknownst to him. One day, while walking along the cavernous seashore, Laura and Simon enter a cave when Simon claims to have met a new invisible friend.

This friend named Tomas has been sharing secrets with Simon. All too disturbing to Laura, that they happen to be true. Tomas reveals to Simon that his parents have kept his adoption and illness hidden from him. When he reveals this to Laura through means of well-thought out scavenger hunt, she becomes even more disturbed by this Tomas.

She is soon visited by a mysterious woman named Benigna Escobedo (an interesting name that when translated suggests an ambiguous hint to the intent of this character). She inquires about her plans for the home, and has information on Simon. This Benigna shows up again one night on the property with a shovel in hand, further escalating the intent of this mysterious woman. Later, Laura and Carlos throw a party to invite local special needs kids to see the house. Simon, having his new-found information and foreknowledge given him by Tomas, begins to become a little bit more rebellious and unruly toward Laura. Hiding in a burlap mask, Simon seemingly plays a trick on a Laura by locking her in the bathroom. When she escapes, Simon is nowhere to be found. Laura and Carlos soon cancel all plans and go on an all out search for their missing son, desperate to find him soon as he needs to take his medicine periodically. Their search, however is fruitless, but does begin to unearth some history from Laura's past involving the Good Shepherd Orphanage, and answers to her son's disappearance from beyond the grave.

To explain more in depth about this complex film would spoil the many twists and turns that it has to offer. It's too good to ruin. The legendary Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance as a medium who, with her team of para-psychologists set-up something out of "Poltergeist" to commune with the spirits in the house. "El Orfanato" is a heartbreaking testament to what can sometimes deter us from the many gifts that life has to offer. The film of course has echoes of classics such as "The Innocents" and "The Haunting", fused with the very real horror of the psychological ramifications of a missing child. This bittersweet ghost story of love, loss, and circumstance is a welcome addition to the pantheons of the genre and will hold up as a classic of its own.