"Horror movie" is too strong a term for "The Orphanage," the debut feature by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. Although his video background might have dictated a frantic assault of shredded flesh and coursing gore, Bayona has instead taken a classical approach to the chiller genre. This is a haunted-house ghost story that derives its unsettling effect from a skillfully built atmosphere of mounting dread, reaching back beyond the pop-slaughterhouse sensibilities of most current fright flicks to older films like "The Innocents" and "The Uninvited" — pictures in which a sense of the uncanny was summoned not with hacksaws and cleavers, but with a simple creak in the night.
A woman named Laura (Belén Rueda) has moved into an abandoned orphanage with her doctor husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and their 7-year-old son, Simón (Roger Príncep). The property is located on a bleak stretch of Spanish coastline that's unlikely ever to feature in tourist brochures. Back when it was an operating orphanage, Laura spent part of her childhood here, before being adopted; now she and Carlos are fixing the place up as a school for handicapped children. At the moment, there are no other kids for Simón to play with ... apart from an invisible friend he calls Tomás. (The movie also echoes "The Shining" in some ways.) Then, just as Laura is wondering what ever became of the orphanage playmates of her own youth, the boy announces that Tomás has been joined by a whole group of invisible kiddies, and that they want to play a strange game with him. Before Simón can explain exactly what it is, though, he suddenly disappears. Months pass, and eventually everyone decides that Simón must have come to some sort of harm and been killed. Everyone except Laura.
This very traditional setup is embellished with tokens of similarly archaic creepiness: late-night knocks and poundings, mysterious whispers, self-opening doors and small, inexplicable footprints trailing off into the dark. There are some very effective jolts (one provided by a snorting, bag-headed figure in a shadowy corridor), but they're more than just unexpected camera pans or sudden reveals, and they're artfully placed. Bayona and his cinematographer, Óscar Faura, maintain firm control over the movie's muted visual design, and the spell of impending doom is never disrupted.
"The Orphanage" is an unassuming picture (and also maybe 10 minutes too long), but it's considerably more than just a rote genre exercise — it gets under your skin. The script, by Sergio G. Sánchez (another Spanish director), concludes with a gratifying twist, and the movie leaves you feeling not simply wrung-out by shock and carnage, but genuinely spooked. Let's hear it for the old school.
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