By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Fear is a universal archetype — no matter who we are or where we are from, when things go bump in the night, we all jump. For me, my own childhood fears are deeply rooted in the foreign horror film thanks to a chance viewing of the 1922 German film Nosferatu when I was six. Directed by F. W. Murnau and adapted (without permission) from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is beyond tame by any modern standard. Yet, its iconography – Count Orlok’s hulking shadow on the staircase – was so vivid to me that I slept with a blanket covering my neck until I was almost twenty.
When we talk “genre”, horror is the one that pops up in every filmmaking country the world over. Be it India or Japan, Italy or France, fear crosses borders. Take, for instance, the recent Swedish vampire film, Lat den rite von komma en (Let the Right One In). Languid and almost romantic, the story explores the bleak life of a pre-teen loner who befriends a “young” vampire; it’s one of the most original takes on the blood-sucker mythos that I’ve seen in years. Likewise, the not-for-the-faint-of-heart Japanese film Odishon (Audition) manages to outdo Hostel in its truly gag-inducing exploration of torture and its disturbing emotional underpinnings. Whether it’s the language, the unfamiliar locations, or the sheer sense of otherness, these films hold a distinct appeal for me because they are so uniquely un-American. While there are exceptions, foreign fright films – the modern ones specifically – tend to be far more subtle and more rooted in psychological terror, especially when compared to the typical American dependence on monsters or gruesome special effects.
In my opinion, one film that fits the bill perfectly is the near-perfect El Orfanato (The Orphanage, 2007) directed by J. A. (Juan Antonio) Bayona. Dealing with a mother’s search for her missing son, the movie is one of the most visceral, spooky, and heartbreaking horror stories of recent years.
El Orfanato is part of a long-standing horror tradition in Spanish cinema, which goes back as far back as the Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali collaboration Un Chien Andalou, in which the eyeball slicing scene remains one of cinema’s great gross-out moments. Today, directors like Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro Amenábar — whose film The Others with Nicole Kidman was shot in Spain and is, in fact considered by many to be a “Spanish” film — are putting Spain back on the cinematic map.
During the era that dictator Francisco Franco ruled the country (1936 to his death in 1975), he staunchly regulated filmmaking in order to stem political criticism. Apparently, the erotic horror films of now-revered Spanish cult director Jesus “Jess” Franco (no relation) didn’t rock the censorship boat and managed to reach the world stage. Franco shocked the film world with the erotic horror fest The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), eventually turning to more and more explicit, even pornographic, imagery with films like Vampyros Lesbos (1970) after moving to France. Other Spanish films from the 1970s continued the concept of sex-and-gore galore with movies like Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) and Vampyres (1974). Spain even has its very own horror icon from the era, a fellow named Paul Naschy, who among other films, reprised the role of “el hombre lobo” Waldemar Daninsky twenty times (now, that’s job security). In 1981, while still making porn movies, Jess Franco filmed the tasteless slasher Bloody Moon, which clearly riffs on 1978’s Halloween. And showing that, by this time, American horror was having an impact in Spain, 1982’s Pieces used the tag line, “You don’t have to go to Texas for a Chainsaw Massacre!” and featured a killer who carves up unlucky college girls to create a jigsaw puzzle of flesh.
The 21st century has seen the true artistic rise to prominence of Spanish cinema in the horror realm. Much credit is due to Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, whose success has allowed him to shepherd young Spanish directors like Bayona. Del Toro’s 2001 Spanish Civil War film The Devil’s Backbone seems to have kick-started an entire new generation of horror directors, including Jaume Balaguero ( Fragile and REC, co-directed by Paco Plaza and remade as Quarantine in the US) and Isidro Ortiz (Shiver).
So, why El Orfanato? Well, for starters, it contains classic horror elements – a haunted house, a woman in jeopardy, and children, who are just inherently scary (says the mother of a toddler). Director J. A. Bayona never approached the film as a genre movie and that is why, I think, it works so beautifully. As he said in an interview, “The things that make movies alive are not the genre but what lies beneath… You must worry about the truth of your characters and that it fits your vision.”
At its core, El Orfanato defies genre classification; it is a supernatural film and a love story, a horror film and a thriller. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez readily admits the influence of classic American horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Poltergeist. Like the latter movies, this one takes its time telling the story, not simply resorting to scary moments to carry the plot. At its core, it explores the importance of love and the pain of loss, while setting up all the essential conceits of the classic ghost story – from brief glances of shadowy figures and the heroine doubting her own sanity to the arrival of a psychic seeking out the ghostly presence. There is no dependence on special effects. The sense of tension and suspense comes directly from the way the film is shot and from the characters’ reactions to situations.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the film because, as David noted with Session 9, it is a movie that needs to be discovered by the viewer. Suffice it to say that its power lies in a combination of Spielbergian wonder and brooding suspense, all held together by the themes of childhood innocence and the purity of a mother’s love. And that, I think, brings us back to my original point – fear is universal. Or, to really show my true geek credentials, “fear is the mind killer.”
Because today’s film deals with the innocence of childhood, it seemed like the perfect day for a non-alcoholic drink. Having spent time in Catalonia, specifically Barcelona, David and I became passionate devotees of Spanish hot chocolate, specifically the pudding-like treat we eagerly consumed every morning at Cacao Sampaka. Cacao Sampaka is the holy grail of chocolate, sourcing varieties from around the world to produce everything from single-bean varieties to herbed, spiced, and liqueur-based confections. But for me, by far and away the most transcendental product they make is their own drinking chocolate, whose consistency comes from the traditional Spanish method of adding cornstarch to the melted chocolate and milk.
1 cup Whole Milk
2.5 oz good quality Milk Chocolate
1.5 tsp Cornstarch
½ tsp Cinnamon
¼ tsp Ground Nutmeg
¼ tsp Ground Allspice
Pumpkin Marshmallows (recipe)
Stir cornstarch and spices in a small bit of the milk until cornstarch is dissolved
Pour milk into a saucepan and add the cornstarch mixture, whisking until combined
Heat milk over medium-high heat, whisking constantly
Add milk chocolate pieces, whisking until completely melted
When mixture is combined and heated through, remove from burner
Allow to sit for five minutes to thicken, then strain through a fine mesh sieve into a cup
Top with marshmallow
Our recipe for Chocolat Espectral, translated loosely as “spooky chocolate”, includes the addition of pumpkin pie spices for a distinctly American twist. And, to keep with the kids’ theme, we’ve included pumpkin marshmallows, enriched with pumpkin puree, for dipping. Both are supremely easy to make, albeit a bit time-consuming. And, while you might not serve this at your grown-up Monster Bash, rest assured that your little goblins (and you) will happily slurp it up on Halloween morn or after a blustery night gathering goodies.
I like to think that, despite the modern commercialization of Halloween, we can still stop and remember what makes it such a remarkable time of year. As with any holiday, it brings a sense of wonder to life by letting us see the world through the un-tired, unaffected eyes of a child – at least, for as long as it takes to dip a marshmallow into our chocolate and savor the gooey goodness of sweet, pure, unadulterated sugar.
Esoterica: For better or worse, the American remake of El Orfanato is on its way with Amy Adams (Enchanted, The Muppet Movie, The Fighter) in the lead role. Unfortunately, Bayona will not be directing.