Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Orphanage

Prior to seeing "The Orphanage", I hastily assumed that this film was going to be another typical ghost story or haunted house movie with only the Spanish dialogue to distinguish it from the rest of the pack, but I am glad to admit I was wrong. At times, the film toys with the normal conventions of the genre - the shock and startle effects, but never gives in entirely. During the first half hour of the film, you may even start to wonder if you are watching a purely emotional drama. That is how the film captivates the audience - by luring them in slowly and mounting the anticipation until it becomes so agonizing that the only choice they have is to sit riveted until the end.

There are several elements that Juan Antonio Bayona incorporated into his directing approach that makes "The Orphanage" an effective entry in the suspense genre, and only occasionally leaning into the territory of the horror neighbor. For one, there is a single point of view taken from Laura - the mother, once raised in the orphanage. Buying the orphanage years later and living it as an adult, mother, and wife, affects her point of view from the start. Imagine visiting your childhood house years later or better yet your grandmother's farmhouse filled with porcelain dolls, creaky floors, and dark basements. You have a faint memory of happy moments, but now through your adult eyes everything is now unsettling, because you find yourself getting lost in a once familiar place. When Laura's son disappears one day, the audience not only feels the panic and guilt a mother would feel in that situation, but the dread of not knowing the layout or past of your own house. As Laura receives a strange visitor somehow connected to the orphanage, Laura questions her identity and so does the audience. Though opinions from other characters are presented, the film never pulls you away from Laura's point of view.

The cinematography compliments this point of view as well. Not once does the camera wander off with Simon after he runs away or with the father Carlos as he makes inquiries of his own. Rather, the camera stays fixed to Laura even when a psychic tries to communicate with spirits in the dark rooms of the house. The suspense is undeniable, even palpable, because the camera restricts the audience's view to security camera footage and the accompanying sound effects.
At other times, the camera reflects Laura's emotional status. When Laura checks over her shoulder repeatedly, the camera holds steady and imitates her movement without cutting. Ultimately though the camera serves the idea of suspense and point of view the best by the "less is more theory", much like Hitchcock mastered.

When other movies tend to reveal too much to the point of becoming predictable, "The Orphanage" takes Laura and the viewer down multiple paths that all could lead to the truth behind what is really happening. Instead of just prolonging the truth, the film entertains one interpretation after another, much like, "it's the one-armed man, no, it's the man in the suit, no it's the girl trapped in the TV." It keeps you guessing all the way until the end. Essentially not knowing what is going to happen or what is real is what suspense is made of. The real interesting aspect of the this film is how it ends up with the mystery unresolved in the hands of the audience to come to their own conclusions. That ambiguity can be annoying to some, but you would be surprised how much tension it creates throughout this film and even after it finishes.

In summary, "The Orphanage" is the type of horror film that is more suspense than horror or gore. It's the type of suspense that keeps you guessing, makes you ask the questions, and leaves you in mystery even after the credits roll. Even the subtitles add to the suspense. The characters are portrayed in a sympathetic light, the performances are believable, and overall the film is a fresh take on a exhausted genre, like the handful of climbers who have scaled Everest and actually live to tell the story.

Why I like Cloverfield

It has no stars, no establishing shots, and no soundtrack. The main characters do not solve their dilemma. The people who survive are not who you would expect. Instead of the editing and cinematography informing the story, the story informs the cinematography and editing. Even the flashbacks in the film are handled within the convention of the story.

In a regular film, the cut represents what we don't see...and what we don't see is the real story. That story only exists in the mind of the audience. Cloverfield works similarly because the story largely exists outside the frame, so it too is in the mind of the audience. That's why the shaky cam in this film is not lazy filmaking but actually very precise cinematic storytelling. The genius of Cloverfield is that it does not feel limited to angles even though there is one camera held by one person. The acting and the special FX often live out of frame. Every big FX film tries to convince you that the world the story takes place in is bigger than the camera can contain but none have achieved it like this. Anyone who has played through a first person video game understand the excitement of discovering what's off screen. They even named the man with the camera Hud as in heads up display.

If Cloverfield achieves a certain kind of ultra reality, and truth is the goal of any filmmaker, then why wouldn't this convention be the best way to present all films? I think because people identify with films as dreams and most dreams are in third person. Cloverfield is scary because it violates the conventions of dreams. The embedded love story suggests a take home message, but it's really just there to string the collasal events together. Tell your loved ones you love them before it's too late. Beyond that it's all visceral, reactionary cinema that will tax your body.

Cloverfield is not perfect and it won't be my favorite film this year. It's just so different. One problem I had with it was the performance of Hud. His vocals somehow feel disembodied like they were mixed in afterward. Maybe the DVD mix will fix this. Also his dialogue occasionally feels forced. Luckily there are only a few moments like this. What the film does well, is let the characters be silent at the right times. Consider the scene when Rob deals with the event that involes his brother. He doesn't say a word for nearly 15 minutes. Or when Marlena gets an eyefull of the disaster at hand. She walks around in a daze for the next ten minutes.

I've seen people have the time of their lives in this film and then get mad because they didn't expect the ending. The opening frame is brilliant and it immediately puts you in a weird state. Each time I have seen this film, the first 3 seconds has gotten a theater goer to yell out.."ooooh crap!" because they thought the projector was broken. This is the biggest clue that the ending will be unexpected. Part of the fun of this film is the audience's reaction. Once this film leaves the theater, it will lose much of it's thrill. The technical achievement Cloverfield has to offer is astounding. It is a unique cinematic experience, and for a monster movie, unprecedented.