Most movies begin with a convenient coincidence. And as long as it doesn’t completely insult our intelligence, we as audience members will accept just about any inciting incident. A lonely boy befriends a gentle alien who didn’t make it back to the spaceship in time. An ordinary businessman raises his hand at exactly the wrong moment and gets mistaken for a spy. A down-at-heel boxer just happens to live in the city where the reigning champ is searching for his next opponent. This is what sets the story in motion. You don’t need a degree in film theory to instinctively know the conventions of storytelling. But subsequent coincidences, even just one, will test our goodwill. They are cheats, pure and simple. Deployed by the writer to get out of a tricky spot. Every movie gets one free pass, because that’s how it has to be. One should suffice. One is plenty.
When I recently watched Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage again, after enough time had passed for me to forget some of the salient points, the same pesky conclusions came back to haunt me. For one thing, the story progresses too smoothly. Now, a sense of simplicity and orderliness is good. The many clunky flicks out there suggest that it is a difficult effect to achieve. But the advancement of a movie’s plot shouldn’t feel this unchallenged or easy. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway. The Orphanage really runs into trouble about halfway through, when main character Laura (Belén Rueda) just happens to see an old woman she’s been searching for right in front of her car, crossing the street. And this is in some snowy mountain hamlet, far from the seaside where Laura lives. Dude, what are the odds? Things aren’t helped by the abrupt and arbitrary nature of the sequence either.
As has become customary when I dump on a movie here at OP-dEaD, I now come running to its defense. Because I really like The Orphanage. Rueda gives a superb performance, and the director skillfully utilizes the creepy setting. Also, Óscar Faura’s cinematography is really good. Few, if any, haunted house movies have ever looked better. Besides, if faced with a choice, I’ll usually take subtle chills and a mounting atmosphere of dread over blood and guts. The Orphanage is pleasantly slow, infused with affection and about as vulgar as a glass of milk. But a tasteful presentation doesn’t automatically bestow more free passes. The rules apply. The rules always apply. Want a haunted house movie that sticks to them? I’d recommend The Others or The Devil’s Backbone, both of which are splendido.