There's a peculiar flatness to The Orphanage, sort of a half-finished feeling like everyone involved knew what the Themes and Meanings of the film were supposed to be, but just stubbed it in and saved the hard work for another day. I have absolutely no doubt that the film is "about" the fears of being a parent, and wondering if you will ever lose your child, and how you deal with that, because the scenes making that clear are all present and accounted for. Yet somehow, those scenes play like first drafts, simultaneously much too obvious and extraordinarily vague. The happy news is that whatever narrative missteps the film makes are almost totally irrelevant compared to its actual reason for being: to scare the audience shitless.

This it does remarkably well, not by being particularly clever or innovative, but simply because first-time feature director J.A. Bayona has a keen hand for taking many things that have worked before and redoing them extremely well. This is in some ways the most fun kind of horror movie: experience tells us that certain shots mean certain things, we tell ourselves, "scary thing X is about to happen," scary thing X does indeed happen, and we jump anyway. It's just that well-made. Bayona uses the tools of the genre like he's conducting a symphony, never falling into the trap on one side of letting the main thrust of the work stall as he focuses on individual beats, nor on the other side is he so wrapped up in the story that he forgets to pay attention to the tiny moments.

The Orphange is set, naturally, in an orphanage: somewhere on the coast of Spain, Laura (Belén Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo), a married couple in their early forties, arrive at the abandoned old building where Laura spent her childhood as an orphan. They have the idea of refurbishing the building and making it a home for special needs children, including their son Simón (Roger Príncep), adopted and HIV-positive. For quite a while, there's nothing remotely creepy or uncanny about the two adults dealing with the real life problems of refurbishing a crumbling building, and a son who persists in treating his imaginary friends like real. Then, one afternoon, Laura takes Simón to a cave on the beach, where he gets very chatty with an unseen boy he calls Tomás. He asks Laura if Tomás can come back with them, she assents, and this is when odd things start to happen.

Even by this point, it's slowly becoming clear how The Orphanage works: do something typical and do it really well. Here's what I mean: in the scene in the cave, there is no reason as such that we should expect any tension. Simón has already talked to plenty of imaginary children, and we have no reason to believe that Tomás is any different. But the string-heavy score by Fernando Velázquez begs to differ; and the distinctly Hermannesque tones in this scene alert us that something is wrong here. Ordinarily, when a horror movie relies on its music for its scares, we call that a "failure." In this case, I was too busy getting the heebie-jeebies to judge whether the scene failed or not.

And so it goes: a little snip from The Shining here, a shot that reeks of Dario Argento there. Not to mention, a similar vibe to Bayona's patron, producer Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan's Labyrinth from a year ago set up pretty much the exact marketing template that this latest Spanish language horror fantasy has been given. Although del Toro's films are a bit heavier on the visionary imagery, while Bayona's is fairly prosaic, with the truly freaky visuals used sparingly for greatest effect.

Instead, Bayona earns his creepy atmosphere the old fashioned way: in the camera and editing room. His collaborators in these regards are stellar: cinematographer Óscar Faura cut his teeth as a 2nd unit DP on the spectacular-looking The Machinist and The Abandoned, and I must admit to seeing none of editor Elena Ruiz's work before, but what I find here is quite satisfying. Bayona and company use some of the most basic tricks in the book like tacitical weaponry: there are so many times that the precise order of long vs. medium vs. close shots contains almost all the tension in a scene, and there are a few extended takes - one especially near the end that I wouldn't dream of spoiling - that are borderline painful to watch, so effectively do the filmmakers use them to control our view of the surroundings. That's actually the key to understanding how The Orphanage works, I do believe: almost everything that is scary about the film is a matter of the audience wanting to see just a little bit more than the filmmakers let us, whether through lighting, framing, editing, or good old mise en scène (such as the aggressive and totally effective use of masks early on in the story).

The script is almost an afterthought in all of this: eminently predictable and full of half-expressed themes. I will give writer Sergio G. Sánchez this much credit, and deserved: the film does as good a job as any film in modern times of not committing us to either the "it's all ghosts!" interpretation or the "it's all rational!" interpretation. In fact, the film seems to jump from one to the other throughout, until it finally ends and settles on...neither of them. I'm not sure if I can name another movie, recent or classic, that manages to leave the science vs. paranormal debate so open, and still end with as much satisfying closure as this one does.

Ultimately, I doubt that The Orphanage is a very deep movie: it's scary as hell, and perfectly crafted to be scary as hell. Those aren't small potatoes. But the simple fact is that I could never urge anyone to see it if they didn't want to be scared - its musings on parenthood, while a needful part of the film's structure, simply don't go anywhere interesting enough to justify the effort. The good news is that I do like to be scared, and I love good craftsmanship, and so for the second time in a row, I find myself ringing in a new year with a Spanish-Mexican horror picture that makes me curse the anemic state of my own country's generic efforts.