The Orphanage is being positioned as this year's equivalent of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, even though the connections don't quite suit it. Del Toro's commitment as executive producer and "presenter" may serve to get American butts in the theater, but Spanish director J.A. Bayona's debut is far less flashy and extroverted than del Toro's fantasy. It falls in the austere tradition that runs from Val Lewton's dreamlike 1940s chillers to Alejandro Amenábar's The Others, passing by Victor Erice's Spanish touchstone Spirit of the Beehive. (It refers explicitly to Peter Pan as well.) While The Orphanage is rated R, it's relatively nonviolent; the rating probably stems entirely from one gruesome image of a car accident's aftermath. It's bound to benefit from the torture-porn backlash, but Bayona is no wimp. For him, true horror is emotional, not physical, and he delivers plenty of it.
Laura (Belén Rueda) plans to open a home for children with special needs. She and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), have adopted Simón (Roger Princep), an HIV 7-year-old. Simón has many imaginary friends with whom he plays elaborate games. For the most part, these fantasies seem harmless until Laura and Carlos hold a costume party. Laura is attacked by a boy in a burlap mask, who resembles a figure in Simón's drawings, and Simón disappears. Six months pass with no word, but strange clues keep pointing to an elderly woman who worked at the orphanage where Laura herself grew up.
You don't need to be a parent to be stirred by the anxieties of The Orphanage, but it undoubtedly helps. The narrative progressively pares down everything except Laura's maternal angst. Rueda's performance brings alive every stage of her character's transformation from stability to an anxious embrace of paranormal possibilities to a flirtation with madness. She steals the show. Particularly in its middle stretch, The Orphanage leaves it up to the spectator to decide if we're watching a ghost story or an elaborate psychological metaphor for grief and memory. Thanks largely to Rueda, the movie packs an emotional charge rare for the genre.
Unfortunately, The Orphanage doesn't entirely deliver on the subtlety it promises. Frequently, Bayona cuts to reveal the sudden presence of an unexpected figure in the frame. It's scary at first, but grows old quickly. While using off-screen space well, he relies a bit too heavily on jarring music and sound effects. All the same, The Orphanage is both frightening and classy, bridging the gap between the B-movie and art house effectively.