The Orphanage is a deeply unoriginal movie, but I don't mean that as a criticism. This superb ghost story is the directorial debut of a young filmmaker named Juan Antonio Bayona, who has brought it to the screen under the stewardship of producer Guillermo del Toro, and like so many first-time filmmakers, Bayona is keen to draw on the power of classic pictures in the genre, something he does in almost every scene here. As a result, there's nothing in The Orphanage – narratively, thematically or aesthetically – to surprise anyone who has seen The Others, The Innocents, The Shining, The Omen or del Toro's own The Devil's Backbone; but just because a film doesn't take us anywhere new, it doesn't mean familiar set-ups have lost their grip. Sometimes, the old ones are the best.
Before the darkness falls, Bayona opens his film in glorious sunlight, with a group of happy children playing in the shadow of the orphanage they call home; but even in this bright prologue the building possesses a forbidding presence. Bayona certainly knows how to exploit the orphanage's eerie qualities; from the outside, he shoots it from low angles, recalling the Bates Motel, and he delights in letting his camera glide gracefully through the corridors, peering into dark corners as the superbly crafted soundtrack creaks and moans. It all generates a suitably creepy atmosphere that the director maintains quite brilliantly throughout, and the story comes straight from the classical mould. One of the children we see playing in that sun-drenched opening is Laura (Belén Rueda) who, as an adult, returns to the now-abandoned orphanage with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) to establish a home for disabled children. This altruistic endeavour is hampered at every turn by a series of strange events, though. A visit from a mysterious social worker (Montserrat Carulla) unsettles Laura, and she is growing increasingly worried about her adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep), who claims more imaginary friends by the day. These spooky happenings gradually build in intensity until, on the day Laura's new venture is due to open its doors, Simón abruptly vanishes.
The police investigation into Simón's disappearance goes nowhere fast, and as the months wear on, Laura becomes convinced that the answers she's looking for lie in the orphanage's dark past. She calls in a medium (a fine Geraldine Chaplin cameo) who seems to endorse her belief in a spectral presence, but others aren't so sure, with Carlos and the police psychologist (Mabel Rivera) worrying for her mental state. Like so many films in this genre, The Orphanage plays on the ambiguity of its central character's quest – is Laura really straddling the worlds of the living and the dead, or are we watching the slow unravelling of a grief-stricken woman's mind? The filmmakers never give us a firm answer to that particular question, and neither does the commanding, emotionally wrought central performance from Rueda, who is utterly convincing as the desperate mother. Sergio Sánchez's screenplay is neatly put together, leaving each occurrence open for interpretation on a psychological or supernatural level, and he develops a series of motifs at the start of the picture that grow in resonance late on, with Laura having to re-enact the games of her youth to unlock the mystery of the orphanage.
"Seeing is not believing" Geraldine Chaplin's medium tells Laura, "it's the other way round", and The Orphanage is good enough to encourage us to believe in what we're seeing. The film draws us into its narrative with slow, steady rhythms, and although it offers plenty of moments that will make you jump out of your seat (literally, in my case, when Bayona pulled off two shocks in the space of a minute), the overwhelming effect of the film is one of creeping dread and anxiety; the curiosity to know what's hiding around that corner, and the fear of really knowing the truth. The final coda, tacked-on after the overwhelmingly powerful climax, feels like an unnecessary attempt to underline that which doesn't need to be underlined, but that's a minor quibble amid a superbly crafted piece of filmmaking. The Orphanage doesn't try to bring anything new to this genre, but it doesn't need to; the film succeeds because the emotions its stirs up are universal, and the fears it evokes are primal. It understands the simple power of dark corridors, unexplored cellars, and things that go bump in the night.