Though the advertising blurbs will inevitably tout The Orphanage as "terrifying" and filled with "edge-of-your-seat chills," the truth is Juan Antonio Bayona's meticulously directed ghost story is more interested in emulating the melancholy tone of The Sixth Sense or The Others than making you pee your pants.
First-time director Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sanchez took a tried-and-true list of supernatural tropes — a haunted house, lost children, long-buried crimes ... even an abandoned lighthouse — and turned it into a richly eerie tale that plucks your heartstrings while jangling your nerves.
Laura (the lovely Belén Rueda of The Sea Inside) and her husband (Fernando Cayo) have reopened the orphanage of her youth with plans to provide handicapped children with care and teaching. With them is their 7-year-old son, Simon (Roger Princep), a fragile little kid with an entourage of imaginary friends. When a strange old woman-ghost begins haunting the property, the invisible companions become spookily real, taking on names of children with whom Laura grew up — even revealing to Simon that he's adopted and infected with HIV. This sets in motion a confrontation with tragic consequences: The boy goes missing and Laura is crushed with guilt. Did he run away or is something ugly at work? Desperate to find him but running out of options, Laura considers supernatural possibilities, which lead her to unearth the dark history of the orphanage itself.
From the very start, there's great sadness running through Bayona's film, and it's Rueda's defiant performance that keeps things from tipping into melodrama. Rueda's Laura is a strong woman who deeply loves her delicate little boy. Each day Simon is missing she dies inside a little more, which makes her psychological breakdown so painful to watch. Even as she uncovers long-buried secrets, you're never sure if the otherworldly events are actual or imagined.
The Orphanage's scares are quite genuine; Bayona delivers some heady jolts. Scenes convince the audience (and Laura) that the terror is real. Hours after watching the film, however, the reality of those encounters comes into question.
Beyond the narrative similarities to Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, there are thematic and visual comparisons, such as gothic but pristine compositions and a preoccupation with innocents in danger. Other clear influences include The Innocents, Poltergeist and any number of Euro horror filmmakers (including Dario Argento).
Unlike the masters, however, Bayona hasn't yet figured out how to ferment his tension-filled scenes into a compelling brew. His film lacks urgency. Instead of holding the audience in an ever-tightening grip, the pace slackens at times, undermining the impact of the story. Nevertheless, it takes skill to balance real emotions with unnerving scares and talent to pull off the thematic weight of Peter Pan, and Bayona does both, elevating our expectations for a genre too often dismissed as frivolous.
If for no other reason (and there are many), The Orphanage should be lauded for its uncompromising finale, delivering the kind of ironic happy ending that only Pan's Labyrinth and Terry Gilliam's Brazil have done convincingly. It's a lovely payoff that balances the devastation of truth with the comfort of a mother's love.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).