The haunted house movie has a mixed pedigree. For every intelligent, atmospheric chiller that foregrounds character and atmosphere, such as Robert Wise's 1963 Shirley Jackson adaptation 'The Haunting', there's an effects-laden piece of shit that has about as many scares as an episode of 'Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends', such as ... well, such as Jan de Bont's lame 1999 remake. Or 'House on Haunted Hill' or 'Thirteen Ghosts', remakes of films that were scrapings from the bottom of the genre barrel themselves.
Fortunately, foreign film-makers know how to handle this kind of material properly. Outstanding Korean horror film 'A Tale of Two Sisters' gave the haunted house genre its most invigorating shot in the arm since ... well, since the genre was invented, while Alejandro Amenabar's 'The Others' proved that you could go mainstream and cast Hollywood royalty (Nicole Kidman) and still turn in something low-key, restrained and creepy as hell.
Now there's Juan Antonio Bayona's 'The Orphanage', produced by Guillermo del Toro, the - let's not beat about the bush here - frickin' genius behind the likes of 'Cronos', 'The Devil's Backbone' and stone cold modern classic 'Pan's Labyrinth'. And while there are no real surprises in 'The Orphanage' (it's descended from a lineage that can be traced back via 'The Others' to Henry James's 'Turn of the Screw' and as such ticks all the boxes you'd expect), Bayona shoots, edits and structures his film so classically, and with such atmosphere and attention to detail, that it's effortlessly effective.
Want to scare your audience? Then keep the apparitions in the shadows, half hidden. Let creaks and bumps and unexplained noises do the work for you. And when you do play your hand, what's more scary: a guy in a hockey mask with a fuck-off big knife or a little kid in a sack mask standing at the end of a shadowy corridor making strange, inhuman, grunting noises?
The implied is so much more chilling than the explicit. Take the scene where Laura (Belen Rueda) and her adoptive son Simon (Roger Princep) explore some caves along the shoreline near the titular orphanage which Laura grew up in and which, in adulthood, she is renovating prior to its reopening. Calling to Simon after he's been gone too long, she hurries into the cave after him. She finds him in conversation with someone hidden behind an outcropping of rock. Laura, narked that Simon hasn't outgrown the imaginary friends phase, tetchily plays along when Simon asks if his newfound friend Tomas can come over to the orphanage to play. As they walk back, Simon leaves a trail of shells and stones picked from the beach, explaining that Tomas will be able to follow them.
Bayona then plays out a few more scenes, directing his audience's attention elsewhere, before he delivers the payoff: Laura, opening the door the next morning, is startled as she dislodges a pile of stones and shells stacked up against it.
It's simple, it doesn't involve any gore or special effects, but - damn! - it gives you the creeps.
Bayona also plays his cards cleverly in structuring a debate between science and superstition when Simon goes missing and Laura finds herself piggy-in-the-middle between clinically logical police psychiatrist Pilar (Mabel Rivera) and world-weary but sympathetic medium Aurora (Geraldine Chapman). Her gravitation towards Aurora's belief system alienates her partner Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and Laura takes the decision to remain in the orphanage alone, convinced that Simon has been spirited away by the ghosts of former residents.
Bayona invests time in establishing character and motivation: there's every reason to attribute the hauntings to Laura's mental state. An orphan herself, she's been lying to Simon about his parentage, keeping from him the fact that he's victim to a terminal disease. Her relationship with Carlos brittle and almost platonically asexual, there's more than a soupcon of the repression subtext that permeates 'Turn of the Screw'. And yet ... and yet ... plot points tesselate, images and memories and childhood games interlock in a narrative tapestry. Of course it's not in Laura's mind: all the clues are there ... Then Bayona pulls back again, and the possibility creeps in once more that all of this might be the imaginings of a woman slowly losing her grip on sanity. It's a delicate balance that Bayona maintains right till the end.
Sure, you've seen most of what happens in 'The Orphanage' in other movies, but usually done a lot more clumsily. Bayona, playing on the comfortingly familiar in order to craft something decidedly discomforting, knows exactly what he's doing. And he does it exceptionally well.