The marketing for The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is, unsurprisingly, making much of Guillermo Del Toro's role as executive producer, a fact that no doubt prompted whichever dunderheaded critic it was who declared it "This year's Pan's Labyrinth!" Irksome hyperbole aside, I still enjoyed the film when I caught it on a whim at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and I went back to see it again this afternoon at a downtown multiplex. It takes little reflection to realize that the story, crammed with innuendo, is of course full of holes, yet none of them seem to actually burrow into the morbidly romantic heart of the material, or take anything away from Belén Rueda's engagingly desperate, sympathetically neurotic performance as Laura, the mother haunted by her missing child long after everyone else has resigned themselves to his almost certain death. Laura and her son Simón share the determining attribute of having both been orphans, and the fidelity and solidarity this imposes on their bond is probably of a nature most of us who've grown up with the security of knowing our birth parents can't truly comprehend. It's this aspect of The Orphanage that I immediately found strangely moving in spite of the film being a bit overcooked by its young director Juan Carlos Bayona.
What drew Del Toro to the film however only became obvious to me after my second viewing. In the largely pedestrian documentary that accompanies Warner's wonderful Val Lewton box set, Del Toro articulates his deep admiration for Lewton, and in The Orphanage we can detect a number of traits that connect directly to Lewton's themes (and in discussing them, there will follow MAJOR SPOILERS). In particular, the film is fundamentally controlled by a very relatable tragedy grounded in reality, while its potentially supernatural elements are finally left ambiguous. As well, the film basically imparts upon the viewer the idea that suicide is a good thing, at the very least a way to resolve an insurmountable emotional wound and make amends with a troubled past. The film's ending is unfathomably gloomy, yet it does imply that the heroine reunites with her son and finds a peace that was otherwise obscure to her.
But as much as the film benefits from its evocation of Lewton's enduringly seductive horror classics, it also works away at the same creeping psychological schisms found at the heart of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, perhaps my favourite horror story ever, one that found its finest cinematic adaptation in 1961's The Innocents. Frustrated maternal urges, isolation and obsession, the veneration if not fetishization of children: all of these factors figure into the mental landscape of The Orphanage (not to mention Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! to which The Orphanage bears several curious resemblances). Perhaps this calls for the delineation of a subgenre: manic surrogate mother and child chillers? ...Let me work on that one.