Though a movie about orphans might seem frightening in its own right, "The Orphanage," which falls somewhere in the often interchangeable horror/suspense/thriller genres, should not be avoided because of a fear of bad scary movies or precious tots. While the Spanish-language film (the country's nomination for 2007's best foreign language film at the Academy Awards) does open with the doings of cute 7-year-old Simon (Roger Princep), the child's early disappearance is central to the movie's clever, absorbing plot about the creepy goings-on at a secluded mansion.
Simon's mother, Laura (Belén Rueda), has moved Simon and his dad (Fernando Cayo) to the seaside retreat because she was once herself an orphan there and wishes to reopen it as a selective facility for a few special-needs children. The old, expansive stone building, sitting by a lonely coast with an abandoned lighthouse, might seem a setting ripe for endless horror clichés. But first-time feature director Juan Antonio Bayona, working from a script by Sergio G. Sanchez, has been armed with interesting, unexpected suspense twists that excuse the otherwise familiar scenery.
Laura stages an introductory party on the grounds for her new wards. Unwisely making it a masquerade, she loses Simon in the confusion, and six months of desperate searching turns up nothing. Was it one of the guests? The old lady snooping around the property? Ghosts of the former orphans? While offering all these up as tantalizing possibilities, the film has a few moments where it too closely resembles other memorable horror movies. But it's mostly a well-told, tense story with a strong claim to originality.
"The Orphanage" has been touted as the new film by Guillermo Del Toro, maker of "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy." It's hard to say how much of a hand he had in producing, but the movie is decidedly not a Del Toro, lacking the overt reliance on CGI that his work (and most contemporary horror films) is known for. "The Orphanage" gets by very well with few special effects, and nothing so over-the-top as computer-animated flesh comes between viewers and their wondering what's lurking in the walls, attics and caves of the story. It's not giving away too much to say that, unlike most madman-and-monster-fueled orgies of gore, "The Orphanage" inflicts most of its terror on the imagination. (R) 105 min. S