“The Orphanage” is executive-produced by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, creator of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” so right from the beginning we expect something fantastic — as in fanciful, unreal and perhaps genuinely, deeply disturbing.
“El Orfanato” is all of the above, as well as one of the scariest movies in recent memory, a complex and powerful trip into a musty toy box of childhood fears and adult memories, set in a former orphanage being renovated by a Spanish yuppie couple and their young son.
Horror movie fans know that anyone foolish enough to move into an abandoned orphanage (or to build a house atop an old cemetery) is asking for trouble.
As imagined by director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez, the one-time Good Shepherd Orphanage, a rambling monstrosity on the seacoast of Asturias in northern Spain, holds special meaning for Laura (played by Spanish TV star Belén Rueda), a former ward who intends to reopen it as a juvenile health care facility with the help of her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo).
Meanwhile their 7-year-old son Simón explores the nooks and crannies of the huge, old building, where even in the daytime it’s dark.
There are dozens of such secret corners in the orphanage, seemingly every one of them occupied by an apparition that makes your skin crawl. Little Simón (Roger Príncep) already has a pair of imaginary friends, and then one day he announces to his mother that he has found a new playmate, Tomás, that only he can see. This imaginary clique soon grows, and before long Laura is hurtled into her own investigation.
Laura opens more trapdoors and ventures down more holes than the little girl in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Director Bayona, here making his feature debut, is clearly a fan of Japanese child-horror films, with dead kids popping out of the shadows, but he wisely reins in the obvious shock cuts in favor of quieter, more profound fears — of lingering injustice, contagion, restless souls, and that old favorite, darkness.
Producer del Toro, the Mexican international who has set the screen afire with his Spanish ghost stories, evidently sees kindred spirits in the Asturian writer Sánchez and Bayona, a native of Barcelona.
As in del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Orphanage” exhumes another buried chunk of Spain’s guilty past and exorcises it publicly, in a remarkably fresh — if not entirely unpredictable — fable for grown-up children.