Horror Without The Gore

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

As American horror has devolved into a butcher's market, where the hacking, lopping and chopping of captives has become the central purpose, the genre has forgotten to care about the people doing all the screaming -- you know, the "us" in the movie.

Hollywood has repurposed the genre into an efficient carnage delivery system; as "torture porn" films such as Lionsgate's "Saw" and "Hostel" have taken in more than half a billion dollars, their characters have been rendered as nothing more than upright lambs to the slaughter. Sure, the genre has occasionally flirted with a more art house style from abroad (those creepy girl-in-the-well "Ring" films by way of Japan). But even those efforts have ignored their audience's deep-seated need to empathize with somebody -- anybody.

One film that rises above this cleaver fever is "The Orphanage," which opened yesterday in Washington. The Spanish-language psychodrama about a woman who becomes convinced that the dead spirits of her childhood have kidnapped her son is the latest in a series of Iberian or Mexican works that emphasize, seemingly, everything but the bloodshed. Yet they're still terrifying.

When we think of the horror classics, we don't recall the gruesome acts so much as the people who weathered them. Think of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), the determined mother in "Rosemary's Baby" who faces the prospect her baby has been fathered by the Devil. Remember Regan MacNeil, the sweet pre-teen of "The Exorcist," whose satanic transformation forces heroics from two soft-spoken priests. Even Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson's demented murderer at the heart of "The Shining," affects us because he's a husband and father gone horribly awry, not some abstract ax wielder.

That is why -- even in the darkest depths of "Saw" -- we find ourselves disconcertingly following the twisted mind of Jigsaw, the killer at its disturbing center. It's why, presented with real-life shooting tragedies in recent years, we are desperate to understand the pimply, alienated gunmen who turn school buildings and churches into killing fields. And it's that hunger for connection that makes us so tenderly susceptible to the recent spate of Spanish-language horror films that has honored the genre's entertainment portfolio -- to spook or terrorize -- without losing sight of the characters involved.

Where the American torture-happy films go (literally) for the gut with volume, sound effects and power tools, the foreign horror dramas -- including last year's Academy Award winner "Pan's Labyrinth" and the 2001 Spanish-financed English-language "The Others" -- seek out menace with implication, allegory and psychological dilemma. The audience discovers the horror instead of flinching from it. Same end, but notably different means. Clearly, something different is bubbling over there in the cultural agua.

"One of the things people are saying when they walk out of the movie is, 'It doesn't look like a Spanish movie at all,' " says "Orphanage" screenwriter Sergio G. S¿nchez, recently in town, with director Juan Antonio Bayona, to talk about the film. "So it's funny how abroad, people see the Spanish elements, and in Spain people like the movie because they see something more universal."

And that universal aspect also comes down to compelling characters.

We care deeply about Laura (Bel¿n Rueda of "The Sea Inside"), who in the new film returns as an adult to the orphanage of her childhood only to battle ghosts and confront her own demons, just as we were powerfully stirred by the young girl in "Pan's Labyrinth" who must contend with an allegorical faun, a fascist father and the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. Similarly, we were swept into the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young widow and mother in "The Others," imprisoned in her ghostly mansion.

"The Orphanage," Spain's Academy Award submission this year for Best Foreign Language Film, has enjoyed rave reviews at festivals -- "rattles the bones of the haunted-house genre and finds plenty of fresh (but not too bloody) meat," declared Variety at Cannes -- and was Spain's most successful 2007 release with a box office take of $35 million, beating even "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

S¿nchez, 34, and Bayona, 32 (a former music video and commercial director), say they began to appreciate the cultural differences between their storytelling and Hollywood's when S¿nchez's script wended its way through various studios and talent agencies in 2003. The responses were almost universally dismissive.

"They all said the script was an impossible mix of horror and melodrama," recalls Bayona. "They said, 'This is like oil and water, you can't play with these two.' "

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