The Orphanage (El Orfanato)

Torture porn and slasher films may come and go, but haunted house movies will never fade away. The Orphanage, produced and presented by Guillermo Del Toro, hammers home that point using the same creaking floors and slippery shadows which have been spooking us for decades.

Even the opening credits offer a disturbing image, the sight of children’s hands clawing at wallpaper to reveal the names of the cast and crew. The Spanish thriller begins with Laura, a towheaded orphan, playing innocent games with her fellow orphans.

Flash forward to the present, and the adult Laura (Belen Rueda) has bought the old orphanage as a home for herself, her husband Carlos (Fernando Cavo) and their adopted child Simon (Roger Princep). The former orphanage will soon host more than Laura’s family. She plans to open the building to house children with special needs. Until then, Laura and her family are left to enjoy the old building themselves.

Laura’s sense of nostalgia starts to fade once Simon begins exploring the house’s many rooms. Simon, an only child who doesn’t know he was adopted, picks up a few new imaginary friends. That doesn’t immediately alarm Laura or her husband. Boys will be boys, and Simon won’t need those imaginary peers once the special needs children arrive. But Simon’s faux friends aren’t content with just playing with him. Soon, Laura gets involved in their shenanigans, which include treasure maps and the kind of games you won’t find on any playground.

Meanwhile, Simon grows more distant from his parents, a pose effectively portrayed by the sober-eyed child actor. Laura throws a big party to inaugurate the home’s new additions, and in the middle of the excitement Simon goes missing. Days pass, then weeks, and they can’t find so much as a clue as to where Simon went.

Laura eventually dials up some paranormal experts, including a character played by Geraldine Chaplin. Their investigation steers the film in a less satisfying, but still unsettling, direction.

When Laura takes desperate measures to find her son, the story heads toward a genuinely novel epilogue.

The Orphanage is all about atmosphere — the creeping camera work, the teasing shadows which portend something sinister. Even during normally static shots the camera slinks around its subjects, like an intruder sizing up its prey. Funny how director Juan Antonio Bayona’s manipulation of shadows and score, courtesy of composer Fernando Velazquez, can garner more goose bumps than a dozen Nightmares on Elm Street.

Like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage supplies a series of images not easily forgotten. A simple child’s game is revisited later in the film for maximum chills. And the sight of a child wearing a burlap mask during the party scene — motionless, speechless — delivers the best scare. And there isn’t a CGI effect in sight.

One would think the whole ‘spooky child’ setup would have run its course, what with The Ring and its imitators pulling every last fright out of messy haired children shuffling about. But The Orphanage finds a few new wrinkles. The Orphanage drew comparisons to the Nicole Kidman thriller The Others during its theatrical run, and it’s easy to see why. Both rely on old-fashioned thrills and feature strong female leads.

Here, it’s Rueda carrying the film as the devoted matriarch doing all she can to hold her family together. The actress’ hard-edged beauty and willingness to appear unglamorous give The Orphanage a stark realism that more conventional stars might have missed.

The film’s ending, while sound by its own twisted logic, tends to deflate the entire affair rather than enhance it. Horror directors often crank up the blood and gore to scare us, but The Orphanage shows a better, cleaner way to get the job done.

The Orphanage comes loaded with quality extras, including a thorough behind-the-scenes feature dubbed Constructing the Orphanage. All the key players lend a hand here without the self-congratulatory tone found in many US film commentaries. The cast shares how the story evolved from a standard horror movie into something more complex and intricately crafted. We even get feedback from young Roger, who breaks down his craft like a screen veteran.

Better, still, is how the film’s acting coach helped invigorate Roger’s line readings. Seems the young thespian let it all hang out during rehearsals and occasionally came to the set drained of inspiration. Other worthy features include the making of the film’s creepy credit sequence, how the film’s score came to be, and some cast auditions and table reads.

RATING 6 / 10