A handful of kids play a game of "statues" in the misty garden of a grand, somewhat lugubrious house on Spain's northern coast. The house is a small orphanage run by nuns, and the little girl who's "it" is named Laura. She's about 7, clearly the leader of the group, and is about to be adopted by a family. She turns her back to the other children and counts to three as they sneak up behind her and try to tag her. When she swings around, they freeze. This happens several times -- Laura turning her back to the approaching gang, the kids creeping up on her while she looks the other way, then stopping and hiding in plain sight when she whirls around -- until the scene starts to take on dreadful, uncanny connotations.
In just a few minutes, Juan Antonio Bayona sets the tone of his eerie, atmospheric first feature, "The Orphanage." Directed from a script by Sergio G. Sánchez and produced by filmmaker and horror-effects wizard Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"), "The Orphanage" is an unexpectedly poignant ghost story about what happens when Laura (Belén Rueda), now a grown woman, returns to the orphanage with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and young son, Simón (Roger Príncep), with the intention of starting a school for sick and disabled children.
After her son disappears, she finds herself pulled back into her past and the events that led to the closing down of the orphanage after her departure.
At first, Laura and Carlos are optimistic about the venture, but Simón is not so sure. He complains that the house makes his imaginary friends Watson and Pepe nervous. To reassure him, Laura takes Simón for a walk on the beach where she played as a child and shows him the secret grotto that she and her friends liked to explore during low tide. Soon afterward, Simón abandons Watson and Pepe for new friends nobody can see, in particular the rather grim-sounding Tomás, who seems to exert a considerable influence over him.
When a strange elderly woman shows up at the house claiming to be a social worker and asking questions about Simón, then turns up again in the backyard one night, Laura is rattled but forgets about the incidents until the day of the party welcoming the school's new residents -- and Simón vanishes suddenly. Convinced both that she's seen a ghost and that the old woman has something to do with Simón's disappearance, Laura begins to consult with paranormal experts (Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance as a medium) after the authorities fail to locate him.
There's a single gory scene in "The Orphanage," and it's so fleeting and uncannily naturalistic -- it happens in broad daylight on a crowded street -- that you almost long to see it again just to confirm what you think you saw the first time. Bayona can distill more dread from a simple party scene with attendees wearing creepy face masks than the usual horror film can wrench from a chain saw.
That's because the terror that emanates from "The Orphanage" doesn't stem from what is unknown so much as from what is known -- specifically, that which the characters fear losing, even after it's lost. Laura's return to the orphanage is an attempt to recapture a happy time in her life (what happened after she was adopted to make her yearn for the orphanage, we never know).
Similarly, Carlos' attempt to hold onto Laura after Simón's disappearance, and even Simón's insistence on spending time with his imaginary friends -- who know things about him he's not supposed to know -- rather than joining the world of the living, all are ways the characters cling to things that are already slipping away from them. And nothing is scarier than that.