Spanish import is deft, emotionally resonant horror.

J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage begins in tranquility. Things are going well for Laura (Belen Ruda). She, her doctor husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and her adorable, imaginative adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) have moved into the orphanage where she spent her childhood. One day, Laura lets Simon explore a cave on the beach, but she soon catches him in a hushed conversation with an imaginary friend. He's just lonely, says Carlos. Kids do this kind of thing all the time. Then he utters three sentences that should never be uttered in a film set at a children's home that's about as cozy and inviting as the Overlook Hotel: "Everything will work out. We'll have a good home. I'm glad we're here together."

Just like that, the trapdoor opens. Simon mysteriously disappears on the day of the orphanage's reopening. Laura's marriage and sanity are slowly worn down by the grief she feels over their loss. The ominous creaks and shadowy presences in the house grow stronger. And Laura delves into her own past as she renews her sorrowful quest for her son.

Early ads for The Orphanage have declared it "this year's Pan's Labyrinth," and it's easy to see why these comparisons have been made. Both films are grim fairy tales that involve strained relationships between parents and children, and both plots rely on strong, gutsy female leads who move freely between the "real world" and the mysterious, threatening underworld of things that go bump in the night. Both movies also get away with denouements that are as quietly devastating as they are emotionally and thematically resonant.

However, Guillermo Del Toro, the director of Pan's Labyrinth (and producer of The Orphanage), has now established himself as a big-time artist; Bayona is merely a clever entertainer. But he'll get there, and it's not like there's a huge surplus of talented filmmakers roaming the streets. Bayona is a tasteful cinematic shoplifter whose allusions to Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura and Otto Preminger's 1965 missing-child psychodrama Bunny Lake Is Missing create an atmosphere of indefinable dread, and he's enough of a prankster to insert two cutaways to a full moon in a cloudy night sky that belong in a Universal Studios monster picture from the 1930s. Niftiest of all, Bayona pulls off a tricky and moving Sixth Sense-style reversal in his final act. But The Orphanage is less baroque, less nuanced, and less politically engaged than Del Toro's best work.

These observations are not meant to diminish Bayona's storytelling skills or his graceful camerawork — although I do wish that horror filmmakers would abandon the sea-green lighting scheme that makes every character look like they've been floating around in a seldom-cleaned aquarium. In a film filled with long, tense sequences that cannily exploit offscreen space and offscreen sound, The Orphanage's most impressive scene is also its most technically complex. When Laura and Carlos bring in a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) to help them unravel the orphanage's mysteries, most of the action is filtered through the four screens of cheap security cameras, whose points of view Bayona juggles effortlessly as he ratchets up the tension. That kind of gusto bodes well for a young filmmaker as comfortable with sudden shocks as he is with actors and locations.

The Orphange

Opening Friday, January 11th

Multiple locations

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