El Orfanato (2007)
I have lost count of the number of horror films I have seen in recent times which deal with supernatural phenomena and, somewhere along the way, seem to forget that the viewers all have their points of reference based in a realistic world-view. This doesn't mean that we cannot appreciate or be terrified by the supernatural, but it is my definite opinion that in order to make these films work on more levels than the explicitly visual (simple scare tactics, if you like - deployed in ghost films such as in the recent The Messengers), the supernatural phenomena must be of an ambiguous nature. We need to be able to doubt them, because as human beings we have a need to rationalize and suggest credible explanations.
The Spanish thriller El Orfanato, produced by Guillermo Del Toro (El laberinto del fauno) and directed by first-time Catalunian Juan Antonio Bayona, balances delicately between the real and the fantastical. In a narrative unveiling which owes more to the drama than the horror genre, it reveals its concept quite early on, presenting the idea of how little Simón seems to get in touch with the spirits of children who a long time ago were residents of an orphanage which now is the home of Simón and his parents. Are the children Simón communicate with simply imaginary friends, or is the villa actually haunted? We cannot be sure. And we are kept wondering about the purpose of these potential phantoms, as the mother, played with impressive devotion by Belén Rueda (Mar adentro), finds herself drawn into a world of ambivalence in which one is torn between sanity and conviction.
El Orfanato works on several levels: As a drama, the film discusses one of the basic fears of any parent, and it does this with sensitivity and intensity. As a mystery, the film is cleverly constructed by screenwriter Sánchez and delicately, if somewhat elaborately, executed by Bayona. However, the latter will be more of a blessing than a curse for most viewers because, as opposed to the trend of fast-paced, mechanical effects-horror, El Orfanato has nothing to hide. It holds up in every sense, and the filmmakers can thus allow themselves the luxury of slowly luring the viewer into its eerie realm instead of using loud shocks for effect. What's remarkable is that this realm doesn't include far-fetched ideas, despite its supernatural thematics. This brings ut to the final level El Orfanato works on, namely as a thriller. I say thriller, because the film has more in common with films such as The Sixth Sense than it does with more gory horror. Bayona bases much of this film's effect on Hitchcock's philosophy that "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it", and in a film as concerned with actual human characters as this one, it is sometimes even the lack of a bang which can be the most frightening.
As El Orfanato concludes, it accepts more than one reading and more than one interpretation. Still, it really doesn't matter which of these you endorse - and therein lies the power and effectiveness of this intelligent film. On a primary level, it scares us with its atmospheric ghost story, and on a secondary level, El Orfanato will get to the patient viewer through profound existentialistic discussions and psychological drama.