"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.