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Festival of Fear: The Orphanage

By  · Published on October 27th, 2016

Junkfood Cinema

The movie you didn’t know you wanted to completely destroy you.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Similarly caught off guard were the attendants of 2007’s Fantastic Fest (which included yours truly) when we were besieged by the Spanish Invasion. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition however, the Spanish Invasion was welcomed…and involved only slightly less death.

In the early 2000s, the very first film school opened in Spain and a crop of brilliant young Spanish genre filmmakers brought their first outings to Austin for Fantastic Fest. Among these luminaries were Nacho Vigolando (Timecrimes), Elio Quiroga (The Cold Hour), Koldo Serra (Backwoods), and J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage).

I remember that screening for The Orphanage. It was the very first secret screening to which I ever managed to gain entry, more than justifying the three-hour wait in line. Before the film began, we were treated to a pre-recorded message from Orphanage producer Guillermo del Toro, a horror master in his own right whose glowing confidence in his protege had me incredibly excited to watch this horror film.

What I got however was something more than horror. I will not say “better” or “bigger” than horror, as that is disparaging to an already unfairly maligned artistic medium, but certainly a movie that far exceed the expectations one may form when pondering a director’s inaugural offering. The Orphanage was a superb Gothic fairy tale with as much content to make the audience weep as to make them scream. The aesthetics were mesmerizing (some of the most gorgeous cinematography committed to film) and the narrative threads were so expertly woven together leading to an ending that is technically perfect and bittersweet in its triumphant devastation.

Bayona, during the ensuing Q&A back in 2007, discussed the idea of the ending and audience wants versus the ending the audience “really wants.” Not to spoil the movie, but if you’re squeamish about such pre-viewing revelations, skip this next segment.

The ending the audience thinks they want is the happy ending where all parties are safe and sound; a return to the stasis of the first act with possibly a few improvements to our protagonists’ quality of life. The ending the audience really wants however is one that re-conceptualizes what “happy ending” really means and what the actual best outcome for the characters based on what we know of them. This type of ending is challenging, not cheaply shocking, and far more emotionally resonate than a joyful promenade into the sunset. I’ll leave you to deduce which type of ending Bayona crafts in The Orphanage.

For more on this masterpiece, no hyperbole in that statement, listen to this week’s episode of the Junkfood Cinema podcast as we continue our Festival of Fear series.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.