The children just want to come out and play, and so do the very clever filmmakers running “The Orphanage,” a fastidiously grim ghost story that rattles the bones of the haunted-house genre and finds plenty of fresh (but not too bloody) meat. An unsettling Spanish synthesis of “The Innocents,” “The Others” and every other cinematic chiller about a woman’s psychic fixation with some not-so-innocent children, this macabre tale of maternal madness should be able to parlay critical acclaim and the imprimatur of producer Guillermo del Toro into robust arthouse returns, with otherworldly ancillary to follow.
Chiller will go out Stateside through Picturehouse, the distributor behind del Toro’s brilliant horror-fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which competed at Cannes shortly after “The Orphanage” began production last year. Just as “Labyrinth” suggested a sinister reimagining of “Alice in Wonderland,” so this more genre-bound item intuitively references “Peter Pan” in its tale of a grown-up Wendy figure grieving her lost boy.
Blowing the cobwebs off a script penned nearly 10 years ago by Sergio G. Sanchez, first-time helmer Juan Antonio Bayona teasingly introduces themes of game-playing and childhood mischief early on. Brief prologue takes place at an orphanage on the Spanish coast, where 7-year-old Laura happily plays tag with five other kids shortly before getting adopted.
Three decades later, Laura (Belen Rueda, “The Sea Inside”) and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) return to the orphanage, hoping to turn it into a home for disabled tots. But the place has an unsettling effect on their young son, Simon (Roger Princep), who develops a set of imaginary friends and starts drawing pictures of a creepy, scarecrow-headed figure from Laura’s own memories.
So far, so “Sixth Sense.” But pic takes on an unexpectedly dark layer of parental psychology when a very creepy social worker (Montserrat Carulla) comes a-knocking and Simon accidentally finds out he’s an adopted kid with a terminal illness. Discovery leads directly to an angry confrontation with mom, followed by the boy’s sudden disappearance.
Six months later, Laura, convinced her son is still alive (if growing sicker by the day), seeks help from a police psychologist (Mabel Ribera), then from a medium named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin). In a tour-de-force sequence shot in night-vision green, Aurora wanders through the house in a trance, later concluding Simon’s fate is linked to those of Laura’s fellow orphans 30 years ago.
Full of disturbing intimations of grief, guilt, rejection and child pathology, pic derives its emotional and visceral tension from the bond between mother and son. Given that Simon drops out less than halfway through, this turns out to be a huge testament to Rueda’s intensely physical performance: Even when she reverts to a near-childlike state, her bereavement and desperation perhaps bleeding into madness, she has the audience completely in her grip.
As Laura moves toward a reckoning with the ghosts of her past, “The Orphanage” opts at the last minute to end on a sentimental note (with a final shot whose symmetry recalls Victor Erice’s classic “The Spirit of the Beehive”). Given the high emotional stakes throughout, the tears feel earned, though auds grooving on pic’s heretofore ruthless shock tactics may find it a trifle soft.
Moving swiftly from one suspenseful set piece to the next (including two indelible jolts that generated giddy, nervous applause at pic’s first Cannes screening), Bayona displays a sense of visual and narrative elegance and formidable thriller chops in an altogether stunning debut.
Shooting in widescreen, Oscar Faura frames the orphanage’s facade like a 19th-century Bates Motel; interior shots are dim but not murky, though often segmented by walls of darkness. Editor Elena Ruiz compounds the effect by briefly cutting to black between scenes.
Fernando Velazquez’s orchestral score is a bit on the loud-and-churning side, but amplifies the sense of an intricate puzzle gradually taking shape. Sound design is exceptional, albeit prone to shameless assaults on the viewer’s nerves.