(CNN) -- At a time when American horror seems transfixed by graphic sadism, the acclaimed Spanish chiller "El Orfanato" ("The Orphanage") harks back to an older tradition of psychological scares and things that go bump in the night.
Belen Rueda plays a distraught mother in "The Orphanage."
Produced by Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"), this elegantly insinuating ghost story has been a big hit on home ground, where it has been nominated for a fistful of Goyas (the Spanish equivalent to the Oscars).
Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have moved into an old building near the sea, the orphanage that was Laura's childhood home before she was adopted. They plan to fix the place up and open a facility for disabled children.
In the meantime, their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) is having no trouble making new friends. The only problem is, his playmates don't exist.
Laura humors him, but she becomes increasingly uneasy when Simon's imaginary friends coax him into an elaborate treasure hunt. The clues lead straight to documentation that he too is adopted, and HIV positive. Soon afterwards, Simon disappears without a trace.
On one level, Juan Antonio Bayona's movie works as a psychological portrait of trauma and grief -- vividly realized in Rueda's worn, frantic performance. If Laura never gets past denial, with no body to mourn, that's understandable. It's hardly unusual that she comes to believe the house is haunted, or that Simon is trying to communicate with her -- even if her contention that the boy's "friends" have taken him is a more exotic delusion. The film alludes obliquely to "Peter Pan," and we come to realize it's not just the "lost boy" Laura seeks, but her own lost childhood.
Spanish audiences may be quicker to discern a political subtext in the story of an old institution harboring grave secrets. Del Toro's own "The Devil's Backbone" was set in an orphanage caught in the crossfire of the civil war, and when Geraldine Chaplin shows up here as a parapsychologist intent on raising the dead, she trails her own history of collaborations with writer-director Carlos Saura, a series of allegories aimed at the repressions of the Franco regime.
At one point Laura starts digging frantically for a body or bodies that may or may not have been incinerated in kilns, and the image is forcefully suggestive of the concentration camps. (It's worth noting that underneath the assured storytelling and confident technique, "The Orphanage" involves a few suppressions of its own; it glosses over a surpassingly incompetent police investigation, for example.)
Thin and pale, black eyeliner pinpointing her big round eyes, there's something a bit spectral about Chaplin herself, but Bayona isn't out to debunk this ghostbuster. What's creepy about the character is that she intuitively understands Laura better than her own husband does.
"Seeing is not believing," she instructs her. "It's the other way round."
First-time director Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez make it as a point of honor to take classic horror movie talismans -- dark caves, lighthouses and cellars -- and milk them for suspense as if they've never been milked before. It gives this otherwise deadly serious movie a playful aspect: We're invited to follow the clues -- including an ornate bronze key -- in Bayona's own artfully constructed game of treasure hunt.
His biggest concession to contemporary schlock is an anonymous child in a Victorian smock with a crudely daubed cloth hood pulled over his head, a do-it-yourself Halloween bogey-boy tailored for anyone's favorite worst nightmares. (The movie also delivers one heart-stopping jolt you would need second sight to see coming.)
Such restraint evokes Val Lewton's shadowy suspense films from the 1940s (most famously "Cat People") as well as Jack Clayton's "The Innocents," and, more recently, Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others."
In common with these old-school horrors, "The Orphanage" taps into a deeper reservoir of dread and sorrow. It's the kind of low-voltage chiller that lingers in the back of your mind.
"The Orphanage" is rated R and runs 100 minutes. E-mail to a friend
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