El Orfanato – The Orphanage for its American release – is an elegy. While it isn’t the first film this year to feature a spooky masked child, it couldn’t be further from the manic Hallowe’en worship of Trick ‘r Treat. El Orfanato is a true Gothic ghost story: a tale of loss, sorrow, and the cost of redemption set against the backdrop of an abandoned Spanish orphanage whose empty, cobwebbed halls mirror the growing loneliness of its inhabitants. Just as the many rooms of the mansion-orphanage hide secrets over generations, so too do the people that come to live there. It’s a film that interrogations the notion of an orphanage, and what it truly means to adopt a child, and be adopted in turn. There are no villains lurking in this house – only mistakes, and the people that make them.
El Orfanato is a poetic, devastating, haunted-house of a film and I recommend you watch it immediately. Just keep the tissues handy.
Don’t worry, I wouldn’t dare spoil it. There’s no spoiling a movie like this regardless, because the storytelling is so dense and deliberate in its pacing that to wreck it I’d have to summarize every moment of the plot. It’s an astonishing piece of filmmaking. It’s no wonder it won so many awards.
To understand what makes El Orfanato so frightening, you have to pass through the events of the film in order, like the stages of grief. It’s the only way to understand. There’s no amount of skipping ahead or trailer-perfect snippets of scary scenes that will describe what makes this film so affecting, though when the scary scenes do show up (eventually!), you’re likely to jump out of your skin from the tension. Director J. A. Bayona is a master of the slow build-up, which makes it all the more impressive that Orfanato is his directorial debut. If he’s reminding you of another director with a penchant for slow builds and an obsession with heartbreaking magical realism, that doesn’t come as a surprise: Guillermo del Toro and J. A. Bayona are friends and collaborators.
Bayona had directed only short films prior to El Orfanato in 2007. He began working with production companies following his graduation from film school in Barcelona, but his relationship with del Toro goes back further to a festival screening of del Toro’s own debut film Cronos, in 1994. The two shared a brief conversation and, according to Bayona himself, del Toro promised to someday produce his work, if ever given the chance. Thirteen years later del Toro signed on as the Executive Producer for Bayona’s El Orfanato.
In doing so he doubled the nascent project’s budget, and gave the first-time filmmaker the resources and space he needed to realize his vision. The results were spectacular.
Released just a year after Pan’s Labyrinth, and as a Spanish-language Horror film with Guillermo del Toro’s name on the poster, maybe the comparisons to El Orfanato were inevitable. There are indeed comparisons to make: both films take place in rural Spain, both feature unexpected, shocking turns into Horror, and both have a morose fairy-tale quality. More importantly, they both delve deeply into the storied tradition of Magical Realism. Pan’s Labyrinth fits the mold by virtue of a literal fairytale world, one that explodes into existence from the mind of a traumatized young girl. In El Orfanato it seems that everyone is traumatized in some way – whether it’s the mysterious old woman with the story to tell, the adopted young boy with the serious health condition, or the deeper, darker secrets of the old house. Magic emerges from these wounds too, only in Orfanato it manifests as a particularly chilling haunting. In Orfanato we don’t escape into fantasy worlds: they slowly chip away at into our own.
It’s rare that I love a film so much that I’m unwilling to discuss the plot at all, for fear of giving something away. El Orfanato is best experienced totally blind – all the better for it to worm its way under your skin. But know that, for the most part, it’s appropriate for anyone with a love of ghost stories and deep, tragic character studies. El Orfanato often isn’t scary for the usual reasons, and that’s a big part of why it works. It attacks an area often left undefended by big Horror fans: the heart.
I said I won’t discuss the plot, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sets.
Outside filming was largely completed in Llanes, Asturias, which is an area in Northern Spain. The orphanage itself is a late-Colonial manor known as Palacio de Partarríu, and like the surrounding landscape, it’s absolutely breathtaking. The grey clouds that hover over much of the film obscure a gorgeous pastoral landcape, one covered in low-rolling hills, with cliffs that drop off sharply into the sea. You’ll see all this in the film, too – the grounds surrounding the orphanage feel just as haunted as the house itself. When the film takes you to the beach and walks you into the cave, it’s hard to avoid shivers – and that’s long before you’re given anything to be scared of.
El Orfanato is the rare Horror movie that truly feels like an exercise in storytelling first, and a Horror film second. At its core, Orfanato is about trauma, inter-generational suffering that manifests within the house itself in unexpected ways. It is poetic, deliberate and enormously sad; it’s also scary, but only as a side-effect of its other, stronger qualities. El Orfanato is a genuinely masterful film, and one you’ll remember long after watching. I know I do.
With that in mind, I’m due for a re-watch.