To all the young Hollywood directors remaking and ruining Japanese horror movies: You're looking in the wrong direction. West, not east, is where the craft of modern suspense is being perfected. Spain is where filmmakers are telling ghost stories to keep our minds whirring into the night, too happily petrified to fall asleep.
What keeps J.A. Bayona's "The Orphanage" in the front drawer of one's nightmares - what makes it harder to shake than a month of lousy teenage haunted-cellphone movies - is its burnished classical style. That and the distressed magnificence of actress Belén Rueda in the lead role of Laura, a nurse who returns to the abandoned orphanage where she grew up. From the opening moments in which wallpaper is ripped away to reveal the credits lurking below, the movie administers dread in fiendishly measured doses.
With her doctor husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), Laura plans to make the building over to house special-needs kids, one of whom is the couple's adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), 6 years old and born HIV-infected. How can you bring in new kids, though, when the ghosts of the old ones refuse to leave?
Simón has two imaginary friends, and anyone who saw "The Shining" will already feel their neck hairs stirring. He meets another during the course of a sojourn in a nearby cave, leaving a trail of seashells to lead the invisible lost boy back home. In the morning the shells are piled up outside the orphanage door. This is the least of the movie's unsettling developments.
On one level, "The Orphanage" uses the ritual trappings of horror-suspense as we've come to expect them: creepy masked figures at the end of hallways, childish titterings in the walls (how "Blair Witch"), stately tracking shots resolving with an unexpected "gotcha" (or not). In the wrong hands - lazy ones - these are clichés. When used by filmmakers who understand craft and performance and story and atmosphere, they pull us reluctantly down the basement steps toward our own fears.
So while there's a creepy old lady named Benigna who haunts the film's fringes, actress Montserrat Carulla evokes as much pity as horror behind her coke-bottle lenses. She doesn't know it but she's a ghost, too, and so is Laura, not in any "Sixth Sense" sense but in the way a person can be pinned to events and sins they think are long buried.
A good spook story understands this - that the past has weight - and Spanish filmmakers understand it better than most, if only because they have 40 years of the Franco dictatorship to work with as fact and as metaphor. Art-house hits from the 1970s like "Cría Cuervos" and "Spirit of the Beehive" told of phantasms and repression and, more recently, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has crossed the Atlantic to make acclaimed horror-fantasies there: "The Devil's Backbone" (2001) and "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006). (He has a third, titled "3993," in the works for 2009). Alejandro Amenábar's "The Others" (2001) is a further influence on "The Orphanage" and its sense of a restless, unseen spirit world.
Del Toro produced "The Orphanage" and lends his newfound Oscar cachet to Bayona's feature debut. The film lacks his profuse invention, though - the gonzo comic-book flair that kept pulling the rug from under your feet as you watched "Pan's Labyrinth" agog. Bayona has fashioned an assured, even conservative piece of work, one that's lusciously filmed and more than a little terrifying but that in the end never widens out to greater art. Content to stay within its genre, the movie also works a little too hard to make sense: The final scenes fit together with a satisfying click, but to accept them you have to swallow a loophole or two.
The suspense classics that last preserve the mystery rather than pack it away neatly - I'm thinking of movies like "Don't Look Now" - and in any event "The Orphanage" gets by on mood and a mournfulness that's not easily soothed. Sadness and loss, it says, are the threads connecting the spirit world and our own, and women, who bring life into the world, understand that far better than men ever will.
The film is full of women, in fact, all standing fearfully at the doorway: Laura, gaining strength as she despairs over the lost boys; the damned Benigna; Mabel Rivera as a hesitantly logical psychiatrist; and, finally, Geraldine Chaplin - the ghost-mother of "Cría Cuervos" 32 years ago - playing a medium called in by the distraught Laura.
It's Chaplin who ties it all together, just as her character binds the humans and the ghosts. Thin and anxious, moving with the slow, stiff grace of a heron, she walks among the specters and carries decades of film history on her fragile shoulders. What she tells Laura is the maxim of movies and ghost stories alike: "Seeing is not believing. It's the other way around."