“They steal your treasure, something you love, and you have to find it… If you find it, they grant you a wish.”
Although The Orphanage went on general release in the UK on the 21st of March 2008, it actually premiered at the Cannes Film Festival almost a year earlier, and is listed on IMDb and elsewhere as a 2007 feature. The screenplay, by Sergio G. Sánchez, was written more than a decade before, in 1996. And the influences on the script itself date from even earlier: classic 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s horror movies such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Poltergeist, and literary inspiration such as ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘The Turn of the Screw’. The film’s director, J. A. Bayona, was influenced by 1970s Spanish cinema, and wanted The Orphanage to capture its unique feel. So in looking back at the film 10 years later, one isn’t just looking back at 2008, but at all of the previous years that touched its creation.
Guillermo del Toro, who’d had huge success with Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006, was brought on board as Executive Producer, and the film was marketed with his name at the top of posters and other promotional material. The film was sold to audiences on the strength of del Toro’s involvement, as ‘Guillermo del Toro presents – The Orphanage’, and there are probably still viewers out there who are under the impression that del Toro himself was responsible for its script or direction. But for most viewers, any disappointment that may have been felt on realising the true extent of del Toro’s involvement soon dissipated on actually viewing the film.
There has been a shift, in horror movies of recent years, from a focus primarily on inspiring fear, (which is perceived as a threat to life and limb), to one of inspiring disgust, (which is perceived as a threat of contamination), in an audience. The Orphanage mostly bucked this trend, apart from the scene with Laura, (Belén Rueda), covered in the cremated remains of her childhood friends, and the body-horror resulting from a road traffic accident. It also has few jump-scares, and for the most part its fear stems from the unseen, from the uncovering of horrific secrets, and from the anticipation of what might happen next. We see this even in its opening titles, which show the peeling back of old wallpaper to reveal what lies beneath.
The Orphanage, true to its literary influences, is an old-fashioned ghost-story in the classic sense. It features an old house that appears both idyllic and creepy, and the landscape as a whole – the gardens, beach, and caves – are full of hidden things, and secret places. It features a mysterious old lady, keys that open who-knows-what, and things that are where they shouldn’t be. It also appears to draw details from classic fairytale Hansel and Gretel. Simón, (Roger Príncep), drops shells along the path so that Tomás, (Óscar Casas), can find his way home, reminiscent of the white pebbles in the story, and we also have a frightening witch-like woman who cooks children in an oven (although in this case not to actually eat them).
The Orphanage’s screenwriter, Sergio G. Sánchez, says that he drew on ‘Peter Pan’ for inspiration, and this is evident in details across the whole of the movie. Simón, reading the story, actually asks his mother, ‘If Peter Pan came to get me, would you come too?’ and then tells her ‘I’m not going to grow up’, which plays on her fear for his future as an HIV-positive child, as well as foreshadowing his eventual fate. Tomás, poor lost ghost-child, trapped in a cave for all these years, is Peter Pan, luring Simón away to his ‘little house’ to play. In ‘Peter Pan’, Hook tries to poison Peter, just as Benigna, (Montserrat Carulla), poisons the remaining children. We also see the theme of belief as a transformative power in both stories. Just as Peter Pan asks the audience to believe in fairies in order to save the dying Tinkerbell, the medium that Laura brings in to help find Simón tells her to ‘Believe, and you will see’: advice that she takes very much to heart. Laura then, is Wendy, bringing the lost children – the Lost Boys – home and caring for them in death, just as she wanted to care for special needs children in life.
It’s interesting to note the tone of this movie: there is no comedy, no light relief, no brief moment of respite from the sense of unease that builds throughout. And yet the story, although it is a tragic one, plays out as the game of a group of mischievous children. “They steal your treasure, something you love, and you have to find it,” Simón tells Laura, unaware that he is the treasure that will soon be missing: “If you find it, they grant you a wish.” It’s a mystery story, with clues laid out from the start, but in metaphor, or foreshadowing, as well as in plain sight. Laura, having found the body of Simón, her lost treasure, demands him back, and is seemingly granted her wish, just as Simón is granted his when he tells her “I wish you’ll stay and look after all of us.”
One of the themes of this story is how far a mother will go for her son, and this relates to both Simón’s mother Laura, who is willing to die for her child, and to Tomás’ mother Benigna, who will kill for him. The Orphanage is that rare movie where all of the creepy children turn out to have been wronged, where none of them are evil, or bad, where they are simply children, doing what children do.
Laura, of course, like Simón, like the other children, ends up dead. And one could read the story, as some viewers have, as the tragic tale of a bereaved mother, someone already unnerved by her return to her old home and the memories it stirs up, who is vulnerable enough to believe the fakery of a medium, and hysterical enough to imagine the fantasy aspects of the tale. One could ask how long she has been taking those pills that she finally overdoses on. And yes, part of the point of the story – of most ghost stories – is that Laura, and the viewer, are unsure of what is real or not. But the end of the movie suggests a sense of optimism, of closure, for Laura and the children, and partly because of this I would argue for watching The Orphanage as a straight up ghost story, for simply believing what you are seeing. It’s just scarier that way.