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FEAR IN THE NIGHT: Laura (Belén Rueda) searches for her missing child in 'The Orphanage.'

Masked Ball

The Spanish import 'The Orphanage' starts off the new year with a seriously good scare

By Richard von Busack

REGARDING the power of ghost stories, Henry James wrote, "The child gives the effect another turn of the screw." There's more than one ghost child in The Orphanage, a hit from Spain, imported and endorsed by Guillermo del Toro. This powerful screw-turner by director Juan Antonio Bayona is being sold as this year's answer to Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth.

The Orphanage doesn't have the deeper psychological and mythical underpinnings of Pan's Labyrinth, except in the sense that it stresses the supernatural strength of a mother. In the lead, Belén Rueda exudes that power. "You are una madre fuerza," one character calls her. She certainly is; she is strong enough to wake the dead.

Laura (Rueda) has coppery hair, a big-boned body and the large eyes and physical gravity we associate with flamenco dancers. She doesn't dress up, and we see her most of the time in Levis and sweaters and tank tops; part of the story involves her doing some construction work on the haunted mansion that was her childhood home and perhaps will be her tomb.

She spent a happy part of her childhood in the Good Shepherd Orphanage on the stormy northern coast of Spain. After she was adopted, Laura married well, to an affluent doctor (Fernando Cayo). The couple decides to buy the orphanage and open it as a refuge for "special children." One such child is Laura's adopted son, Simon (Roger Príncep), whose problems are not apparent to us.

Underneath the nearby cliffs is a grotto that fills up with seawater at high tide. During a walk to explore the grotto, Simon —deep in his "imaginary friend" stage —claims to have seen a little boy called Tomás who lives down there. To bring Tomás back to the house to play, Simon leaves a Hansel and Gretel-style trail of seashells.

When Laura is alone, a strange owlish social worker, Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), visits her; then we wee Benigna prowling the grounds at night. Later, Laura and her husband hold a masked party to welcome the new children. (On the evidence of this and Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin, it seems as if Spanish party masks would be the best kind of souvenir, if you could find them. They haven't changed since Goya's day; they depict warped-looking animals and very bad clowns.) No one notices one peculiar guest at the party: a small child in a hooded mask of painted cloth, who looks like a rotted Raggedy Andy.

Momentarily lured away from the crowd, Laura is cornered in a hallway by the masked child, a purring, clicking creature. These sound effects seem like the most Del Toro quality in the film, much like the insect fairy that acted as herald to the great god Pan. The child forces Laura into the bathroom, injuring her (the only gore in the film, except for the quick shot of the aftermath of a bad traffic accident). When Laura is rescued, Simon has vanished utterly.

The only possible suspect is Benigna, but the police have no record of her. Laura suffers through the passing six months, as no sign of Simon can be found. Finally, driving up to the Cantabrian mountains in winter, she and her husband pick up a clue. From there, the desperate Laura turns —via a grief-therapy group —to the supernatural. This is when the screw begins to twist in earnest. A bizarre medium named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) turns up and immediately senses the vibe of the house: "We are not alone."

In a night shot, Chaplin shows some of the gift of pantomime that made her father famous, wandering through the halls and listening through the doors. The voices of the dead come in like badly tuned radios through the electronic monitors. Aurora's parting words: "Seeing is not believing; it's the other way around." And so Laura begs her husband to be left alone in the cursed house to try to rescue her son.

The Orphanage is one of those rare —hell, almost extinct —movies that work poetic, sensitive and tragic horror without the use of pop-ups. The opening titles —hands scrabbling away at flocked wallpaper —hint at the thrilling finale. And the thunderous symphonic score by Fernando Velázquez gives the film touches of grandeur. Beside the visit by Aurora the medium, the most deeply horrific moment is carried out without special effects. It consists of simply the swiveling of a camera between a grown woman, playing a "Simon Says" children's counting game, and something uncanny that is approaches her, step by step ... with her permission.

The film wastes little time on the part of the story that urges, "Surely, there must be a rational explanation for this." There is, however, a hole in the plot that the film finesses very nicely. It's not really noticeable on the first go-round. Director Bayona excels in misdirecting the audience like a magician. Only after a second viewing does a rational objection comes up. So much trouble could be avoided if orphanages only had alumni newsletters ...

Movie Times THE ORPHANAGE (R; 100 min.), directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, written by Sergio G. Sánchez, photographed by Óscar Faura and starring Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep and Mabel Rivera, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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