As a little girl, Laura once spent many happy hours of play with her fellow orphans in front of the sprawling, gothic-style house that was their home. Several decades later, she returns to the now-empty building with warm memories in her heart and a dream of transforming the place into a haven for special needs kids.
Her husband, Carlos, is happy to lend his doctoring skills to the endeavor, but their young son, Simón, isn't so enthusiastic. The one-time orphanage scares him and makes his two imaginary friends, Pepe and Watson, very uncomfortable.
Laura tries to sweep away her son's fears—and his need for invisible companionship—by introducing him to some of her favorite childhood places, including a sea-washed cave that she and the other kids used to explore during low tide. However, when Laura gives Simón a moment to examine the dark grotto on his own, he discovers something more than seashells. She seeks out her son and finds him conversing with a new imaginary friend named Tomás—a character who plucks the strings of a shadowy memory that Laura can't quite place.
When Simón draws a crayon portrait of the scarecrow mask-wearing Tomás and five more new ghostly friends, Laura becomes concerned. When the make-believe buddy starts to negatively influence her son, lead him on spooky treasure hunts and reveal secrets that no one else is supposed to know, she gets scared. And when she's attacked by a flesh-and-blood Tomás, and Simón mysteriously disappears, Laura becomes frantic.
Even after the authorities give up the search for the boy and encourage her to move on, an emotionally stretched Laura doggedly seeks the truth and slowly pieces together clues about the orphanage and its horrid past. It's a past filled with terrors that she was unknowingly a part of and must face once again.
Laura and Carlos have a passion for helping children and are both very loving toward their son. In fact, they adopted Simón with full knowledge that he was suffering from a deadly disease. After the young boy disappears, Laura speaks to her husband about their family, stating that, "Together we're strong."
Laura refuses to give up hope that her son might be alive and bravely faces any life-threatening obstacle to find him. After an old woman is struck by a truck, Carlos struggles to save her life.
Ghosts. Life. Death. And everything in between. We hear the voices of suffering "dead" children, and we're shown their shadowy images. Thus, we're introduced to the afterlife—at least the kind of afterlife that has dead children still hanging around an orphanage. A medium is asked to use her abilities to explore the preternatural goings-on in the old orphanage. She talks of the intersection of a spiritual "timeline" that some people (especially those close to death) are particularly sensitive to. The medium also states that, "Seeing is not believing. It's the other way around."
Simón tells his mom that if he solves all the clues in a treasure hunt that his whispy friends have given him, they'll grant him a wish. Later, Laura plays her own treasure hunt game with the spirits and asks for the return of her son.
An old film displays a group of children praying before a meal. Laura tries to re-create the moment and prays before a table filled with food, asking for God's blessing. When Simón goes missing, Carlos gives Laura a Saint Anthony medal "for luck." She wears the medal and clutches it when she's scared. The orphanage has a small chapel with a stained glass image of Jesus.
Laura wears form-fitting tank tops, a low-cut sundress and, in a dream, a cleavage-revealing nightgown while swimming.
In an intense jump scene, an old woman is violently struck by a speeding truck. She is thrown to the side of the road and we see that her jaw is ripped away from her face and hanging by a knot of muscle tissue (though it's oddly bloodless). Laura is attacked by a mask-wearing child; he smashes her fingers in a door jam and she falls back into a bathtub. When she gets up, she pulls a fingernail off her gore-smeared hand.
We're shown a boy's badly deformed face and are told of his malicious drowning. Large bags containing ashes and bones (including a partially smashed skull and a jawbone) are poured out on the floor. We see the corpse of a boy on the ground. While running to save her son, Laura falls in the crashing surf and breaks her leg. Her knee is bloodied. A large glass window slams down suddenly and smashes into shards.
Suicide is attempted. Laura slaps Simón's face during an argument. We hear about a woman who poisoned children.
Crude or Profane Language
English subtitles reveal an f-word, an s-word and "a--."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Simón and Laura both take prescription medication.
[Spoiler Warning] Laura downs handfuls of pills in an apparent suicide attempt. And when she discovers her son's corpse, she tries to force medication into his mouth.
Other Negative Elements
Simón becomes particularly disobedient at one point, screaming at his mother.
Produced and presented by Guillermo del Toro (the man who created Pan's Labyrinth), El Orfanato, or The Orphanage in English, is an eerie and atmospheric—Spanish-language—flick that feels like something from a bygone movie era. Let's face it, most contemporary scare-fare has devolved into gory flights of sadistic torture-porn that has all the finesse of putting a pig in a meat grinder (and yes, that's been done). Such cinematic cauldrons of calamity contain collections of disgustingly cheap "thrills" that don't rise to the entertainment level of gagging on rotten food.
This film, however, draws much more from the directing repertoire of Alfred Hitchcock than Eli Roth. Audience anxiety is sustained by creaking floorboards, slamming doors, a mother's protective passion and the shadowy unseen rather than slash-and-splash gore.
In fact, the one hit-by-a-speeding-truck moment (that seems almost ho-hum on today's celluloid violence scale), stands out as shocking compared to the rest of this movie's bump-in-the-night effects. The result is a taut, well-acted film with goodly amounts of old-school panache and flare. Why, it even has a "happy" ending.
But, oops, there's where things get hinky. In addition to all its questionable spiritual mumbo-jumbo (that is to be expected—but not excused—in a ghost story) The Orphanage's final plot twist essentially glorifies death and suicide. Overdosing on pills is sugarcoated and lifted up as the singular warm-and-fuzzy moment in the story.
This dark worldview may be shrugged off by some as just another M. Night Shyamalan-style dramatic gotcha. But in truth, it's serious stuff, and it can change the way people think about their own demise. It also negates all those aforementioned artsy restraints as it leaves viewers mulling something much more disturbing than the campfire ghost story it concludes.