You can sense Guillermo del Toro hovering over The Orphanage, the Spanish-language horror film and first feature from director J.A. Bayona. That's a good thing—del Toro, who directed last year's chilling fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth, produced the new picture, lending it the same sort of maturity rarely seen in American horror films, which have largely degenerated into serial-killer pictures, torture porn and the occasional gore fest directed at the 'tween set. The Orphanage is more ghost story than horror movie, and though it's low on the gore scale, it's still very scary, deeply atmospheric and seriously creepy, owing success to its solid direction and cinematography from Oscar Faura that holds the same precision to detail as Pan's Labyrinth.
Laura (Belén Rueda) lived her early years in an orphanage, a large, sprawling house on the Spanish coast near a lighthouse. A happy child, she was adopted, leaving her friends behind to live a typical life with a typical family. Thirty years later, however, she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) return to the orphanage with their son Simon, planning to turn it into a facility for special-needs children. But a lot of bad stuff went down at the orphanage after Laura was adopted, and unfortunately for her, Simon is one of those beautifully innocent, precocious little kids who sees dead people. Dead kids, actually, and it isn't long before Laura and Carlos are wondering if Simon's new imaginary friends aren't altogether imaginary.
The parents are focused on getting the house ready for their new guests and are totally unprepared when Simon goes missing at the facility's inaugural party, forcing Laura to investigate what happened to the other former residents of the orphanage after she left.
Evidence begins to point Laura to the ghosts of her old friends, trapped in the house many years ago, as her son's abductors. But Carlos is a doctor, a man of science and reason—the Scully to Laura's Mulder—and even a documented séance by a spirit medium (Geraldine Chaplin), complete with computers, video cameras and audio recording (a very cool segment, by the way) can't convince him otherwise. As time drags on, Laura is left with less and less support in her suffering, and eventually she's alone in the house, forced to depend only on herself and her past life in the orphanage, to come up with a way of recovering her son. As she gets deeper into the mystery and closer to the fate of her old friends, the film gets gloomier and darker, and she must almost regress to her former self in hopes that the building's other residents will recognize her and lead her to Simon.
Now, it might sound as though you've seen this story before. And, yes, there are plenty of ghost-story traditions being retold here. It's easy to pick out elements of Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense and others, but the story is told with such craft and such emotion that the film stands on its own. And when it comes to creepy, it's tough to top the visuals created by Bayona and his collaborators. The long pans down intricately designed hallways and the freaky kid dressed as a scarecrow are both chill-inducing, and there's nothing quite as painful to watch as deformed children (except, perhaps, dead deformed children). Additionally, the children's games the ghostly kids play with the adults manage to be both amusing and menacing at the same time, and like in Pan's Labyrinth, it's always questionable whether or not all of this is actually happening, or if it's some sort of psychological projection by Laura designed to help her cope with her missing son.
Either way, the tension in The Orphanage is so thick that you might find yourself looking away or covering your eyes in hopes of warding off impending screams or horrifying sorrow.