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Film / The Orphanage

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"A tale of love. A story of horror."

The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is a 2007 Spanish-language horror film directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by Guillermo del Toro of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy fame.

Laura and her husband Carlos decide to return to the orphanage where she grew up before she was adopted. Laura has herself adopted a son, Simón, who is HIV-positive. There is, however, a secret to the orphanage and what happened there after Laura left - including Tomás, a mysterious boy who always wears a sack mask.

This film provides examples of:

  • Arc Words: "Un, dos, tres, toca la pared." note 
  • A-Team Montage: A lengthy montage of Laura fixing up the house to look like the orphanage back when she was young.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Laura finds Simón...dead, and it's her fault. She commits suicide, but is reunited in death with Simón and the other orphans because that was Simón's wish that he had granted after winning the scavenger hunt game. The movie ends with Carlos learning that his wife and adopted son are now happily haunting the orphanage, which is something he smiles about.
  • Can't Move While Being Watched: The children's game.
  • Cathartic Scream: Laura lets one out after eventually finding her son and realizing that she was responsible for his death.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Perhaps the most heart-wrenching example ever with the steel scaffolds in the cupboard under the stairs. They fall out of the cupboard while Laura is searching for Simón and she puts them back against the back wall of the cupboard before continuing the search. By doing so, she unknowingly blocks the entrance to Tomás' secret room while Simón is inside and leads to his death.
    • The wrapping of Simon's first ice cream after his tonsil operation pops up again later, cluing Laura into checking his chest for the next clue.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Simón teaching Laura a scavenger-type of game becomes important later in the movie.
  • Compartment Shot: Two in short succession. The shot from inside the window bench where Laura discovers the five dolls. The next scene is shot from inside the cupboard where Laura fetches the sixth doll to place them with the others.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Averted; after the bus accident, Carlos tries CPR on Benigna—it doesn't work, and she looks anything but pretty afterwards. Plus, Carlos has to mop the blood off his mouth afterwards.
  • Creepy Basement: The basement room where Tomas lived is especially dark and frightening after years left unoccupied.
  • Creepy Child: Tomás definitely comes across as menacing thanks to his mask and eerily silent demeanor, while Simón has moments where he comes across as a creepy Oracular Urchin; the same goes for the other young ghosts of the orphanage, all of whom are as silent Tomas most of the time. In reality, there's nothing deliberately malicious about any of them: they're arguably examples of Children Are Innocent.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: Although it's less nihilistic and more bittersweet; basically, Simón wasn't kidnapped by Benigna or hurt by the ghosts - but had accidentally died due to a tragic mistake made by Laura during her initial search for him. Laura overdoses herself with Simón's medication... but finds herself reunited with Simón after death, where she can now serve as a surrogate mother to Tomas and her old friends.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The ghosts of the other orphans wear dark clothes. Yet they are simply trying to warn Laura that Simón is trapped in the basement.
  • Deadly Prank: Normally kept out of sight by his overprotective mother, little Tomas was allowed outside on the condition that he wore a sack mask; unfortunately, while on an outing to a beachside cave with the orphans, one of them stole his mask in a poorly thought-out attempt to make him show his face to them all. Without his mask, Tomas refused to leave his hiding place in the cave - only to end up getting drowned when the tide came in. Worse still the five kids who were blamed for the incident were murdered by Benigna.
  • Deathly Unmasking: The film concludes with the ghosts leading Laura to the hidden room beneath the house, where she finds a masked body lying on the floor by the staircase; thanks to the distinctive sack mask, the corpse appears identical to Tomas... but when unmasked, she discovers that it's actually Simon, her missing son. Having dressed up in Tomas' old mask for his birthday, he hid in the concealed basement... but found himself trapped down there after Laura unwittingly blocked the secret door with construction scaffolds during her first big search for him, and in his panicked attempts to escape, Simon broke through a banister on the staircase and fell to his death.
  • Death of a Child: No child dies on-screen but we learn about a gruesome case of child poisoning, the accidental drowning of Tomas in a cave and, most notably, the death of Simon in the basement.
  • Disposing of a Body: Benigna cremated the bodies of the five orphans and stored the remains in sacks in a shed by the house, the contents initially mistaken for flour up until human bones are found within.
  • Door Handle Scare: In one scene there is a close-up on the turning handle of the bathroom door next to the bedroom while a Scare Chord is playing on the soundtrack. Turns out it was Carlos exiting the bathroom while Laura thought he was with her in bed.
  • Dramatic Necklace Removal: Before dying, Laura rips Carlos' pendant from her neck, signaling to him that she has finally found her lost son. Despite his grief, Carlos smiles when later finding the pendant on the floor.
  • Dramatic Slip: Laura slips and breaks her leg when trying to reach the cave during high tide.
  • Exploding Closet: The steel scaffolds in the cupboard under the stairs fall out when Laura opens the door in search of Simon, forcing her to waste precious time putting them back in before continuing her search. Tragically, by doing this, Laura ends up pinning the secret door to the basement shut, trapping Simon inside.
  • Facial Horror:
    • Tomas is quite badly deformed, his face looking cadaverous and almost decayed as a result, hence why his mother made him wear a mask.
    • After being hit by a bus, Benigna's jaw is ripped clean off her face.
  • Fingore: At one point Laura gets her fingers slammed in a closing door by Tomás's ghost, trying to warn her about Simón. It's bloody and icky and fingers should not bend that way. One of her nails falls right off.
  • Flashback Cut: Laura's revelation at the basement comes with two swift flashbacks to (1) Simon talking about "Tomas' little house" and (2) her unwittingly blocking the way to the secret room.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Laura has a necklace with a St. Anthony medallion. This is actually clever foreshadowing since St. Anthony is a doctor and patron saint of lost items.
    • Laura mentions that they plan to care for six or seven special needs children. In the ending, she does exactly this... it's just that said kids are the ghosts of the orphanage.
  • Fright Beside Them: Laura feels her husband get into bed with her, and speaks to him for several minutes...before seeing him emerge from the bathroom.
  • Furnace Body Disposal: Benigna, the old caretaker of the orphanage, poisoned the five children who were unwittingly responsible for her son's death, cremated the bodies and stored the remains in sacks in a shed by the house.
  • Ghost Butler: Sometimes doors and windows close by themselves.
  • Ghostly Goals: The ghosts are mostly interested in helping the Haunted Heroine find her missing son, as she was their childhood friend. She does uncover their murders, but they don't really care about that bit. Neither goal ultimately allows them to move on, but they do get a new nanny to keep them company in the process.
  • Haunted Heroine: Laura.
  • Haunted House: The former orphanage is haunted by ghosts of the murdered orphans.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Tomás made a horrible rasping noise, likely due to his deformities.
  • Imaginary Friend: Simón has many and Laura initially thinks Tomás is one of them.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Inverted, the ads and trailers for this movie make it seem like it was directed by Guillermo del Toro, not the actual director, Juan Antonio Bayona.
  • I See Dead People: Eventually, Laura acquires the services of a medium who is able to hear the ghosts in the house - revealing that they were murdered by Benigna.
  • Jump Scare: A couple. For example, when a hand slamming a door in Laura's face.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Downplayed. The other children at the orphanage wanted to get a look at Tomas' deformed face and refused to take no for an answer, ultimately stealing his mask during a visit to the sea caves in the hope that he'd eventually be forced to leave and show himself in the daylight - result in Tomas' accidental death by drowning. However, Tomas and the other kids seem to get along just fine as ghosts.
  • Linked List Clue Methodology: The movie is full of them. Simon enjoys setting them as a game for his mother; when he disappears, she finds herself following one to try to find him.
  • Look Both Ways: Benigna is hit by a truck while looking at Laura instead of watching the traffic.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: Done with the disfigured (but not disabled) Tomas who was put in a mask and kept in a secret basement. But in something of a subversion he's still allowed out, and to play with other children. The whole matter of keeping him in that room seemed to be a quirk of his overprotective mother, more than anything else.
  • Masking the Deformity: The ghost of Tomas wears one, which he also apparently wore in life to cover up a deformed face.
  • Near-Death Clairvoyance: Characters close to death can see ghosts. Simon can see ghosts supposedly because of his illness. Laura sees them once she overdoses on her medication. The psychic also seems to be suffering from a terminal illness judging from the eczema on her arm that she shows to Laura.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: A lot of the movie is built on an incredibly unnerving atmosphere as opposed to jumpscares. For example, early on in the film Laura wakes up to hear a clanging sound from outside. She goes out the front door and heads toward the shed, where the noise seems to be coming from. She says "Who's there?". Suddenly the crickets stop chirping, the clanging stops, the wind stops, and she is surrounded by an extremely chilling silence.
  • "Open!" Says Me: Laura kicks the latch to the cremation furnace open with her boot.
  • Orphanage of Fear: The entire film is set in a former orphanage. Played with, since it wasn't all that frightening back when the protagonist lived there, though. Apart from one creepy employee it was closer to Orphanage of Love, considering how she remembered it with affection. Later it really became one when that same creepy employee ended up POISONING the other children and burning the remains to hide in a coal storage.
  • Peek-a-Boo Corpse: Benigna after the car crash.
  • Psychic Powers: The medium can hear the orphans screaming.
  • Scare Chord: The aftermath of the car accident is underscored by these.
  • Secret Room: Tomas was hidden away in a secret basement room; later, Simon hides himself away down there after uncovering the secret entrance.
  • Staircase Tumble: Simon died from falling and breaking his neck when the banister of the basement stairs gave way.
  • String Theory: After Simon's disappearance, Carlos and Laura keep a pinboard in their home with a map and clues regarding the case.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Carlos, but not so much as he still supports Laura.
  • Surprise Vehicle: Justified in Benigna's fatal bus crash, since everything fades to silence. Presumably, the characters' attention is so occupied that they don't hear it either.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Benigna poisoned the orphans after her son died from a Deadly Prank.
  • Time Skip: The story skips six months ahead after Simon's disappearance.
  • Together in Death: Laura gets happily reunited with Simon after her death, becoming a surrogate mother to him, Tomas, and her old friends from the orphanage.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Laura unwittingly blocked the door to the Secret Room with construction scaffolds during her first search for her son which ultimately resulted in his death.
  • Whoosh in Front of the Camera: Something wooshes in front of the camera when we see Laura walking down the stairs to the Creepy Basement.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Benigna. After Tomas died, she poisoned all the other orphans.
  • You're Not My Father: Simon calls Laura out for not being his real mother after learning the truth from Tomas.