Much of Juan Antonio Bayona's gothic Spanish horror film The Orphanage feels familiar. There's a piece of The Others here, a touch of The Sixth Sense there, a pinch of Poltergeist, a smidgen of Friday The 13th, and even a streak of Pan's Labyrinth (which shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro produced The Orphanage). But while some of the trappings and even some of the plot elements could easily be called unoriginal, Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez arrange them in a fresh way, crafting an emotionally resonant, nerve-jangling experience.
Belén Rueda plays a former orphan who, as an adult, buys the orphanage where she grew up, intending to turn it into a home for handicapped children, including her HIV-positive adopted son, Roger Príncep. But on the day the facility is supposed to open, Príncep—who spends his days talking to and playing with imaginary friends—disappears, and Rueda becomes convinced that his invisible pals have spirited him away somewhere, and that she can find him if she can just figure out the elaborate game of Treasure Hunt that the ghosts have devised.
The scares in The Orphanage derive first and foremost from Bayona's skillful deployment of horror-movie grammar. He gives the audience the tension of a close-up, followed by the relief of a long shot—where bad things rarely happen—before dropping us straight into the "Oh hell, what's that" tension of a medium shot. The Orphanage also plays off the embarrassment of awkward social situations, and some common parental anxieties—and he plays off them a little indiscriminately. (Anyone with children is advised to think twice before buying a ticket.) Bayona and Sánchez serve up a clever story with some fiendish surprises and killer nightmare-fodder, and though it's not much more than that, the movie will still leave a lot of viewers weeping and quivering, because it confronts some primal questions. Who's under that mask? What's beneath that wallpaper? And is there something creeping up behind you?