I used to love horror movies, but now I tend to dread screen dread. It's not that I've grown too old and jaded to be scared—nobody outgrows fear—but the new breed of horror movies, pitched almost exclusively at young male moviegoers, are more interested in sensationalism than insinuation. Movies like the "Saw" series and the "Hostel" franchise frighten by assault. Crushingly literal-minded, they leave little to the imagination—where the most resonant terrors incubate—and they've driven away a lot of horror-loving adults. But don't we need and deserve a good fright, too? A little terror, properly applied, is a kind of exorcism, yanking into daylight those primal demons that we stuff away in the back drawers of our psyches. A great horror movie is like a good shrink—and a lot cheaper, too. It purges us through petrification.
That horror movie, thankfully, has arrived. It's called "The Orphanage," and it is seriously scary. This little Spanish ghost movie—made by a gifted young filmmaker named Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by Mexico's Guillermo del Toro, the man behind last year's Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth"—remixes many familiar horror-movie tropes: a haunted house that was once an orphanage, a sickly child with imaginary friends, a spiritualist contacting the dead, a grieving mother (played to the hilt by Bel?n Rueda of "The Sea Inside") whose sanity appears suspect to everyone but herself. Though it bears a strong relation to such films as "The Others" (directed by another Spaniard, Alejandro Amen?bar) and "The Innocents," the elegantly chilling 1961 version of "The Turn of the Screw," it feels freshly imagined. The shivers of dread "The Orphanage" conjures up rely neither on gore nor on special effects: the sight of a child standing in a hallway wearing a grotesquely disturbing burlap mask freaked me out more profoundly than any severed limbs in "Saw."
The less you know of the plot, the better. Let's just say that Sergio S?nchez's richly ambiguous screenplay allows you to interpret what you are watching on both a supernatural and a psychological level, and either way is equally unnerving. The small screening-room crowd I watched the movie with was a pretty sophisticated bunch—but not for long. Forty minutes in, our defenses had been shredded. We were alone with our fears, but we quivered as one.