The past is never far behind in the Spanish horror drama The Orphanage (El Orfanato), a creepy movie that mixes horror with personal drama.

As a child, Laura was raised at a seaside orphanage before being adopted and removed from her friends. Now an adult, Laura (Belén Rueda) wants to reopen the orphanage as a place where she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) can help some special needs children. Laura also wants to raise her young son Simón (Roger Princep). Unknown to Simón, he is adopted and HIV-positive, secrets Laura keeps from him.

Simón has a large number of imaginary friends; and some of them may not be so imaginary. After a visit to a nearby cave, Simón talks about his friend and leaves behind a trail of shells to lead him to their home; that night, Laura finds the shells piled up on their doorstep. And while entertaining the families and children for the new home with a party with masks, one silent child appears wearing a sack on his head. Then Simón vanished without a trace.

The Orphanage has plenty of horror elements -- creaking and moving items in the house, figures that seem to vanish -- but it's more about Laura's need for her child. She pursues every avenue available to find Simón, from the police to parapsychologists. Her pursuit leads her to the past, and to recreating the history she left behind at the orphanage.

Relying more on tension and atmosphere than gore and violence, The Orphanage is an effective movie. Rueda shines as the parent facing her worst nightmare and willing to do anything to get her son back. The rest of the cast is solid, but they are present to react to Laura, from husband Carlos' understandable desire to move on and concern for his wife's sanity to the psychic medium fearful of providing too much hope. The Orphanage may not be a typical horror movie, but it's a film worth seeing.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

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