Having a child destroys your immunity to horror, real or imagined. Before the blessed event, you could laugh off The Exorcist, The Omen, or any of a thousand gory shockers with some wide-eyed tyke as either the prey or the spawn of Beelzebub. But afterward you can't even see the baby carriage teetering on the steps in Potemkin without quaking like a Brownie in a chainsaw maze. Onscreen and offscreen, the world is suddenly a box of broken glass; every glistening point aims at your little one — helpless, innocent and entirely dependent upon you to shield him.
Homing in on this sore spot like weakness-seeking arrows, two potent strands of horror cinema, very much of the moment, come together in the Spanish-language creepfest The Orphanage. One is the child in peril, seen most recently (and wrenchingly) in the underrated The Mist; the other is the child as a threat (see Joshua — somebody should). Shifting between them to unsteadying effect, this eerie import bearing the imprimatur of producer Guillermo del Toro mixes classic haunted-house atmospherics with tooth-rattling jolts as it conflates a mother's darkest fears.
An orphanage would seem to be the last place anyone would revisit, especially the grown mother of a sick child. But Laura (Belén Rueda), with her doctor husband (Fernando Cayo) as a partner, means to remake the gloomy old facility where she grew up into a home for disabled children. Shown in a pre-credit flashback playing with her childhood friends just before her adoption — not a moment too soon, as we learn — she has a personal stake in caring for ailing kids: Her tousled, fanciful little boy, Simon (Roger Príncep), has AIDS — a secret she has managed to conceal.
Even before other children arrive, though, Simon isn't lonely. On a walk to a nearby sea cave, Laura overhears him talking to an unseen someone in the cavern's dark recesses. Soon, the boy enlists his skeptical mother in a game with his imaginary playmates, who direct him from one clue to the next — leading straight to the one thing in the house Laura doesn't want him to find. As her son begins acting like a sullen, withdrawn stranger, a party for the clinic's children brings an unexpected guest: a mysterious child who glares wordlessly from beneath a grotesque cloth mask.
Is Simon the target of a ghostly presence, or is he the one to be feared? By day's end, in the hairpin curves of Sergio G. Sánchez's script, Laura will know which is scarier: having a child vanish figuratively, into an unfamiliar and off-putting phase of development — or literally, into thin air. Sánchez has stuffed a sepulcher's worth of ghost-story tropes into one tale, among them a spooky former orphanage staffer out of The Turn of the Screw and a medium out of Poltergeist — Geraldine Chaplin makes a great Zelda Rubinstein. Perhaps as a result, first-time feature director J.A. Bayona's staging suffers early on from lazy familiarity. Punctuating every mundane scene with a slasher-stinger zing! doesn't add tension; it just dredges up Jason Voorhees from the muck of Camp Crystal Lake.
But The Orphanage gets steadily more engrossing — and scary, as Rueda's performance takes hold. Wandering the empty house in jittery despair, Rueda gives as gripping a screen solo as Will Smith in I Am Legend (the season's other ice-bath in the isolation of parental grief). Transformed by obsession into a wraith herself, seeking answers not just to her son's disappearance but to a nasty secret from the facility's past, Laura enters into a game with the spirits of the orphanage's former residents — lost boys who see her as a beckoning Wendy. When the answers come, peeled away one awful layer at a time, they're as bleak in their implications as The Mist's now notorious ending: an exorcism of the worst a child's protector can imagine.
In this, The Orphanage resembles del Toro's downbeat but unexpectedly popular fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, which it echoes in ways both general (the setting of a large, remote mansion, children in danger) and specific (the emphasis on fairy-tale tasks and talismans, the influence of Victor Erice's haunting The Spirit of the Beehive, an evident touchstone for this generation of Spanish horror cinema). There, too, the only hope the movie holds is for an afterlife in the imagination — the promise extended by fables and ghost stories alike. Both The Orphanage and Pan's Labyrinth tap into the elemental imagery of those cautionary forms, bred in our bones from childhood. To watch them now — and in The Mist and Joshua — is to feel the commingled terror and worry our parents felt when they first gazed at us.