Politics & Policy

A Spanish Spine-Tingler

The Orphanage is scary -- and subtle.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” — John Donne, Death Be Not Proud

The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut film, produced and presented by Guillermo del Toro, features a spectacular setting for a ghost story — a large, old house, surrounded by thick woods, and just yards from the coast, where the sea has carved out hidden caves along the strand of an isolated cove. With echoes of The Sixth Sense and The Others, The Orphanage is a crisp and well executed film, with outstanding performances from the lead roles of mother and son, moments of genuine suspense, and an ending that poses the question whether — as Donne puts it — death is nothing more than “one short sleep past.”

The film opens with Laura (Belen Rueda), her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and young son Simon (Roger Princep) moving into a seaside home, which at one time had been the orphanage where Laura had lived happily as a child before her adoption. There, Laura and Carlos intend to establish a home for disabled children. Simon is increasingly lured away by encounters with imaginary friends, who, he claims, inform him that he was adopted. In fact, he was adopted — though Laura and Carlos had planned to tell him the truth only when he was older. Simon gets lost momentarily in a cave while walking on the beach and leaves a path of shells for his friends to find their way from the cave to his house. Then, he invites his mother to join him in a treasure hunt that he often plays with his secret friends — a game so elaborate that Laura is more frightened by the prospect of her son’s crafty duplicity than by the possibility that he is telling the truth.

That changes one afternoon, when Laura hosts a kind of costume party for disabled children at the orphanage. In an isolated part of the building, Laura is confronted by a creepy child wearing a burlap bag as a mask, a costume reminiscent of the one worn by the villain in Batman Begins. The boy assaults and nearly kills Laura; immediately after that event, Simon disappears, as does the strange, masked boy.

After feverishly searching for her son amid the invited guests, Laura rushes toward the mouth of the cave, which is rapidly filling with the tide. Laura is restrained from going further by Carlos, and as he pulls her away, we see images of a boy standing in, and then vanishing from, the cave, as Laura screams that Simon is within. At this point — and for much of the remainder of the film — the question about the truth of the boy’s tales shifts to questions about his mother’s sanity.

The story picks up six months later, with Laura unwilling to accept her son’s death and inviting a medium to the house to see whether the presence of ghosts can be detected. In a marvelous sequence, the medium traces the sounds of children to a bedroom where she confronts unspeakable horrors. Before leaving, she informs Laura that those who are close to death, as her son was at the time of his disappearance, can see the other world. “Seeing isn’t believing. Believe and you will see.”

The intersection of fantasy and history, the dead and the living, will be well known to those familiar with del Toro’s work in, say, The Devil’s Backbone or last year’s superb Pan’s Labyrinth, to which this film is being compared. In interviews about Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro — whose role with The Orphanage is as a sponsor of young directorial talent — mentioned the influence of William Peter Blatty’s film, The Ninth Configuration. Interestingly, The Orphanage also recalls that film, specifically in the role played by a religious medal (of St. Anthony) and in the theme of death embraced as a proof of love.

The comparison with Pan’s Labyrinth is bit unfair, as that film is much richer in terms of symbolism, plot, and its fusion of fantasy and history. The Orphanage, a much less violent film, earns its scares — of which there are many — through suspense and subtlety. In this film, the only thing more frightening than the screams of unseen children is their laughter.

The film moves toward its resolution as Laura, noticing that certain objects in the house are inexplicably out of place, decides to use these objects to play the game of treasure hunting to which Simon had introduced her. Following the clues leads her to a horrifying discovery, involving the history of the orphanage and her own childhood classmates. The question is—who planted the clues? In a desperate attempt at communication with the dead, Laura, now alone in the house, attempts to recreate the orphanage in the details of her childhood. The conclusion, which contains a number of twists and goosebump-inducing moments, raises this question: Does Laura’s choice represent spiritual progress through sacrificial love, or regress through a failure to accept death — a desire to cling to a past she cannot let go?

“Can I wake up now?” is a question Simon poses to his mother early in the film. That question resonates throughout the entire story, a convincing portrait of souls caught between two lives, in the short sleep that is death.

Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.

Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

Most Popular

Elections

Hell, No

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about language, culture, politics, and other things you can fight with your family about at Thanksgiving. To subscribe to “The Tuesday” and receive it in your inbox, follow this link. The Case against Trump In 2016, my friend Roger Kimball of Encounter ... Read More
Elections

Hell, No

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about language, culture, politics, and other things you can fight with your family about at Thanksgiving. To subscribe to “The Tuesday” and receive it in your inbox, follow this link. The Case against Trump In 2016, my friend Roger Kimball of Encounter ... Read More

Another Pollster Sees a Trump Win

The Trafalgar Group’s Robert Cahaly is an outlier among pollsters in that he thinks President Trump will carry Michigan, Pennsylvania, or both, and hence be reelected with roughly 280 electoral votes. (I explained his thinking here.) Last week another pollster, Jim Lee of Susquehanna Polling and Research, ... Read More

Another Pollster Sees a Trump Win

The Trafalgar Group’s Robert Cahaly is an outlier among pollsters in that he thinks President Trump will carry Michigan, Pennsylvania, or both, and hence be reelected with roughly 280 electoral votes. (I explained his thinking here.) Last week another pollster, Jim Lee of Susquehanna Polling and Research, ... Read More
Elections

The Only Middle Finger Available

If Donald Trump wins a second term, it will be an unmistakable countercultural statement in a year when progressives have otherwise worked their will across the culture. After months and months of statues toppling and riots in American cities and a crime wave and woke virtue-signaling from professional sports ... Read More
Elections

The Only Middle Finger Available

If Donald Trump wins a second term, it will be an unmistakable countercultural statement in a year when progressives have otherwise worked their will across the culture. After months and months of statues toppling and riots in American cities and a crime wave and woke virtue-signaling from professional sports ... Read More

Trump vs. Biden: A Rundown

One week out, the contrasts are worth assessing. Foreign policy Biden so far has issued no substantive critique of Trump’s foreign policy other than banalities that Trump’s comportment and unpredictability have offended allies and tarnished America’s reputation. But who exactly, according to Biden, is ... Read More

Trump vs. Biden: A Rundown

One week out, the contrasts are worth assessing. Foreign policy Biden so far has issued no substantive critique of Trump’s foreign policy other than banalities that Trump’s comportment and unpredictability have offended allies and tarnished America’s reputation. But who exactly, according to Biden, is ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Kavanaugh Court

If Justice Barrett votes as her mentor Justice Scalia did, she will be part of an ascendant conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What kinds of decisions can we expect from this majority? Short answer: Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Contrary to how journalists frame each seat change on the Court, comparing the new ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Kavanaugh Court

If Justice Barrett votes as her mentor Justice Scalia did, she will be part of an ascendant conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What kinds of decisions can we expect from this majority? Short answer: Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Contrary to how journalists frame each seat change on the Court, comparing the new ... Read More