Presented by Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage really, really wants to associate itself with Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s tour-de-force fantasy from last year that also boasts spooky locales, children without parents, and an alternative world belonging only to children and those who can believe in fantasy. It’s not exactly a close comparison, other than that both films are Spanish and elegantly play with genre conventions. The Orphanage is much more a thriller than Pan’s, and owes a greater debt to top-shelf haunted house stories like The Others or The Haunting. Saying something isn’t quite Pan’s Labyrinth is no insult, and The Orphanage has a genuine vision and an aching humanity of its own. It’s a fingers-over-your-eyes thriller that still has the power to break your heart, and given current American trends in horror films (usually of the limb-sawing variety), that’s a rare thing indeed.

Laura (Belén Rueda) grew up in a seaside orphanage in Spain, and left at a young age with nothing but idyllic memories of the place. As an adult she returns with her husband and young son Simón, hoping to open the house to children with developmental disabilities. Her son, always lonely and imaginative, soon starts to play hide and seek games with imaginary friends, games that involve hiding and moving objects he would have no way of finding on his own. Laura suspects something is up but doesn’t worry until, during a party for the children who will come to live in the house, her son disappears. Laura is attacked by a child wearing a sack mask whom no one else sees, and now convinced she is the only one who can find her boy, sets out to uncover the mysteries of the house and her childhood.

The Orphanage is screening as a midnight special during the New York Film Festival, and it’s a great choice. It’s the kind of movie so filled with dread and tension that you never believe it’s safe to bring your hands away from your face. One moment, the only instance of gore, is so shocking that an entire room of movie critics gasped. A total wimp when it comes to suspense, I confess to seeing probably less of the film than I should have, constantly scared out of my wits that the kid in the sack mask would reappear (just googling this image to illustrate my point gave me chills). Though The Orphanage sticks fairly closely to a genre fomat, and the plot twists become a little predictable, the film packs surprises all the way to the end, and not the cheap fake scares that pass for thrills in many horror movies. As Laura becomes more desperate to find Simón, turning to psychologists and even a psychic medium, she turns from rational decision-making to full-fledged maternal panic. You never know what she’ll do next, and though you trust her, Bayona never promises a happy ending—and, depending on who you ask, you don’t get one either. Rueda commits herself fearlessly to the performance-- she reportedly lost 10 pounds during filming--and carries the entire film on her tense shoulders. American starlets who have sleepwalked their way through any number of recent thrillers should hang their heads in shame.

New Line is already planning an English-language remake of The Orphanage, the kind of pillaging that should be banned by now. Don’t wait for the version without subtitles. Though The Orphanage never achieves the kind of genre transcendence that Pan’s did, it is an expertly plotted and acted ghost story that is finally--finally!--a thriller for grown-ups. Making his directorial debut here, Bayona shows immense promise to come, an uncanny grasp on genre combined with deep, genuine emotion—Bayona said he was inspired by American melodramas of the 1950s, and his commitment to character over plot shines. Spain recently chose The Orphanage as its entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and though the film will likely get creamed thanks to its genre roots, it will open the film to an American audience that needs to remember how to find humanity in horror.

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