It’s been a while since we’ve been genuinely scared by a movie. “I Am Legend” came close. So did “Knocked Up” – well, unintentionally. But there have been next to no horror films lately that have truly startled.

Emily Mayer
The elephant man in his formative years. (Courtesy of Picturehouse)

To brand “The Orphanage” as a horror film is a bit unfair. This is one of those rare ghost stories that is actually compelling. So atmospheric, tense, emotional and competent a film is this that it goes beyond the trappings of that unfortunate genre. No brass soundtrack shocks, pointless nudity or gratuitous blood is to be found here. In one of the most promising directorial debuts in recent memory, J.A. Bayona crafted something the horror genre doesn’t see often: a great film.

A Spanish orphanage is reopening in modern Spain, and its past is muddled in the eyes of the new operators, Laura (Belen Rueda, “Savage Grace”) and her husband. Laura used to be a resident of the orphanage, a place for unique children. She has decided to clear the house and re-open it with her own son Simon in mind (newcomer Roger Princep). Simon’s ill, and it hangs a pall over his parents.

One day at a nearby beach, young Simon wanders into a cave, where his mother finds him talking to an unseen friend. Laura brushes it off as another imaginary friend for Simon, but something’s not quite right. Countless treasure hunts ensue. New imagined friends keep showing up. Items mysteriously vanish within the house. Though cute at first, the incidents become more and more sinister.

At the opening party of the renovated facility, Simon disappears. Without giving away too much, the film makes its way into a mysterious and dizzying search for the missing boy. Months go by, all hope seems lost. Laura becomes maniacal searching for her lost child, desperate for at least one more embrace. Harkening back to classic mystery fare such as “Don’t Look Now” or even “Poltergeist,” this is “The Searchers” of Spanish thrillers. An unrelenting quest by Laura, we feel her pain and loss, yet believe her and want to support her desperately.

“The Orphanage” is a case study in how a film can be both smart and scary. It’s a standard, old-school ghost story, one that’s reminiscent of Val Lewton. You develop your leads so that sympathy is earned, not manipulated. Set design and photography marry to create an eerily accented, yet beautiful, place to set a film. Music and sound coexist to confuse one another, never allowing the audience to be entirely sure of what might happen. Viewers never know what’s around the corner, whether they’ll be assaulted by another horrifying image or simply relieved something’s over. Just try and sit through the medium’s house exam or Laura’s petrified noises without feeling something.

It all leads up to a contested conclusion that will leave audiences feeling either cheated or heart-warmed. After the slight confusion over the premise, and some possible controversy about the liberties taken from other works, “The Orphanage” comes to stand on its own as a masterful work of suspense. Somber and sad, the film becomes a meditation on love for others, regardless of circumstance. It’s surprisingly touching.

It’s easy to pop something up in front of a screen and make someone jolt. Anyone can do that on Halloween. But to actually terrify an audience and keep them emotionally invested at the same time seldom happens in the genre anymore. This film works well. It should be noted that Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) presented this film. Similar to “Labyrinth” in its sleepily scary aesthetic, “The Orphanage” makes a fine, arguably superior companion piece.

Seeing this film is like a purging breathe of fresh air. It’s alright to be frightened, because it only means “The Orphanage” is doing something right. J.A. Bayona has made an engaging and bittersweet spectral drama – one that shouldn’t be missed.

The Orphanage
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
At Showcase

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