The Orphanage: Spirited away

Spanish director's Casper is no friendly ghost

In the ghost story The Orphanage, a young mother named Laura (Belén Rueda) feels no fear when her adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) mentions his imaginary friends. She shows curiosity rather than concern when Simón talks to unseen new playmates in a dark coastal cave, and then leaves a trail of seashells so they can follow him home.
But the next morning, when Laura finds the shells in a pile on her front doorstep – that might have been a good time to start worrying.

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona makes a confident debut with The Orphanage, showing a keen sense of control at building dread by increments. Things that seem only mildly unusual at first can turn out to be utterly nightmarish. Bayona cast a spell over Spain, which named The Orphanage its official entry for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The film's English-language marketing plays up the role of producer Guillermo del Toro, director of 2006's Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth. The Orphanage, however smart and effective, belongs more in the lesser but respectable league of fellow Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, starring Nicole Kidman. Bayona's film ultimately feels more like a collection of strong set pieces than a single, unified narrative, despite a moving performance from Rueda.

Bayona entices the audience from the very first shots when we see Laura as a young girl, playing a game similar to "Red Light, Green Light" with other children. Laura spent part of her childhood at a stately, surprisingly pleasant-looking orphanage in rural Spain. As an adult, Laura plans to reopen the long-shuttered building as a school for special-needs children.

Like the best modern ghost stories, The Orphanage's supernatural threat both derives from and exploits problems in the family dynamic. Here, Simón doesn't know he's adopted or that he has a health problem, but the appearance of an elderly but sinister social worker threatens to reveal the truth. Laura and her husband Useless – I mean, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) – overlook ghostly signs at the orphanage until an enigmatic child in a spooky scarecrow mask crashes the party that opens the new school. When tragedy strikes and deepens the mysteries, Laura discovers that answers may lie in the orphanage's history.

Many ghost stories that try to appeal to adult audiences feature young kids, and the dumbest of them simply prey on the vulnerability of children. The smarter ones, such as del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone (both historical thrillers set in Spain) evoke childhood's willing suspension of disbelief. For kids, the supernatural can seem perfectly natural. In The Orphanage, some of the best scenes show grown-up Laura playing childish games, including a creepy scavenger hunt, and gradually detecting an influence from beyond the grave.

Rueda's performance has a maturity and respect for character that even good horror films usually don't equal. Even when she's engaged in occult sleuthing, she conveys the different facets of maternal love, in which devotion and sacrifice go hand in hand. Even though screenwriter Sergio Sánchez crafts such a credible role, the script contains frustrations, at times lacking momentum and relying on an overly familiar evocation of Peter Pan and Wendy.

The Orphanage features a chilling set piece with paranormal investigators, and skeletal Geraldine Chaplin serves as the equivalent to Poltergeist's diminutive ghostbuster Zelda Rubinstein. But the scene, however well made, feels inessential and goes a long way to say a little. The Orphanage suffers from no fatal flaws, though. It's just haunted by the memories of ghost stories of the past.