Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Orphanage:Juan Antonio Bayona does a horror film that mixes beautifully the tricks of the horror tradition and the twists of modern films.

As usual I read the reviews about this film before going to the cinema and as sometimes happens this was a mistake. The critics were very enthusiastic about his film and praise was freely given. As a result as soon as the film finished I felt a disappointment. I had expected too much. Many times before I have claimed that a good film stays with you getting stronger by day. In the case of The Orphanage I realized that my initial disappointment was false. The next two days after the film images kept creeping on me and surprising me. Then after a week it finally faded not into a haunting memory but into at least to a fond one.
What makes a good horror film? Most of all and above all its atmosphere. In a nightmare what scares people is the feeling in the air. When one is trying to explain what made him uncomfortable in his nightmare he finds it difficult to explain. He usually has to result to the phrase: “you had to be there”. Orphanage manages to create threatening pictures of simple incidents and built up the anxiety of the spectators. The first sequence of the film is not only very cleverly shot but is an ingenious motif that is repeated at one of the most terrifying and intense scenes of the film. Nothing is more innocent than a children’s play. Still Juan Antonio Bayona manages to transform it into a sinister experience. The children play a game that is known to all the nations of the world. Someone is counting and the others are moving. When he stops counting he turns to look. The others must stop and remain completely still. This goes on until one of the children approaches enough to touch the child that counts. The he runs and the counting child must catch all the other children in order to win. In the first scene of the film a small girl is counting on the bark of a tree. The other children are approaching but the director keeps then out of frame. In this way the spectator doesn’t see who is approaching until the very last moment and the anxiety keeps increasing. Later on the grown up heroine plays the game with the ghosts of the children. She counts and in the beginning she can’t see her playmates. As noises are heard the spectator knows that the ghosts are there. Counting over and over again she and along with her the spectator sees the dead children approaching. We are forced to keep our breath since we know that in the end the ghost will have come close enough to touch the heroine. This touch is something that the spectator completely intoned with the heroine both wishes and dreads. A child’s play takes a whole new meaning. In many scenes we see and hear the wheel squeaking and turning. This image of a child’s’ toy emphasizes the lack of children in the yard, their absence firstly and their supernatural presence later on.
The images are intense but they are not entirely new. They belong to the long tradition of the horror film. In the Nightmare of the Elm Street, for example a kids’ song about the boogie man of the dreams takes a terrifying meaning in world where Freddy Cruger stalks the dreams. In Fritz Lang’s M the balloon a toy again becomes the symbol in the begging of the kid’s presence and then of it’s disappearance and murder.
Other tricks up Juan Antonio Bayona’s sleeve are the chilling scenes. A door is banged on the fingers of the heroine making her finger nails break and bleed. Even if this is a minor wound most people reflexively find this incident disgusting. The deformed child with the covered head is another fear factor. Killers and paranoids the cinema has taught us that are freaks heavily deformed usually masked. The car accident and the sudden death of the strange woman are used to provoke a shock to the spectator.
The new thing in the recent horror films is that the power that traditionally is threatening proves to be not only innocent but even helpful and sympathetic. Dead people and ghosts are not the threat as seen in Sixth Sense or the Others. The gravest threat and the source of evil are people. Beyond death there seems to be no hatred and no wish for revenge only a different set of rules. Orphanage is following this new lead proving that a stupid incident and not the ghosts of the children leads to the devastating end.
When someone analyses the ways the director used to create the atmosphere he realizes that orphanage takes advantage of the usual ideas of the horror genre without really offering something new. Even its twist and turns are something fairly used in the latest horror films. On the other hand it has a clever script, great actors intelligent directing a terrifying atmosphere and arresting images. Asking for more than that might just be avarice. I might just as well admit it: Some times over education spoils all the good old fun.
Favorite phrase and scene: Unos des tres, tocca las pares

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