The Orphanage, 15

This Spanish horror is stewed so thick you expect lumps of chorizo and garlic to float to the surface. Not for the weak-stomached or faint-hearted

An old lecturer of mine used to maintain that the true spirit of Gothic fiction lay in its sound effects. For him, it was all about the slamming doors, the cracking of thunder, the rattle of chains – or to use his memorable formula, "Boom, vlam, clickety click!"

That pretty much sums up the appeal of Spanish chiller The Orphanage. There's little that's visually new in this haunted-house tale, but just listen to the atmospherics crafted by sound designer Oriol Tarrago: thumps, knocks, creaks, windows that spontaneously shatter, not to mention the very creepiest sound in the entire Gothic palette – children's voices.

Scripted by Sergio G Sanchez and directed by feature debutant J A (Juan Antonio) Bayona, The Or-phanage is a richly thickened Iberian stew. The Spanish TV star Belen Rueda plays Laura, who has moved back to the cavernous seaside orphanage where she lived as a child. She now has her own adopted seven-year-old son, the rather gratingly winsome Simon (Roger Princep), and she and her husband plan to reopen the house as a home for disabled children.

But strange things are afoot: Simon finds a mysterious, possibly imaginary child hiding in the old caves nearby; an old woman in pebble glasses and an unflattering raincoat (Mabel Rivera) is hovering with ominous intent; and a taciturn child in a sack mask, apparently part of a Junior Elephant Man Kit, is lurking and growling outside the upstairs bathroom. In addition, strange invisible presences have laid on a surprise treasure hunt for Simon and his mum, a long-abandoned lighthouse looms darkly on the horizon, and a portly expert on the supernatural is on hand to lecture about Jung and doppelgängers.

It's no exaggeration to say that the dish is somewhat overcooked: you expect great chunks of chorizo and garlic to float to the top. And it gets spicier still. Just when things go quiet, there's a gratuitous, breathtakingly preposterous car accident to make you jump out of your skin, followed by one of those Carrie-style hand grabs to make sure your heart's still functioning. Later, to add more conventional spookiness, the dependably weird Geraldine Chaplin arrives as a psychic to communicate with the house's restless forces. "It's cold," she shivers, which is no surprise: Chaplin always looks as if she'd need a spare jumper in the Sahara. Bayona leaves no thrill untried. There's even a scene in which Laura explores the old house in a wheelchair with one limb in plaster: nothing puts the edge on a woman-in-peril scene like a gammy leg.

The film contains one stupendously icky special-effects jaw injury, presumably to appease the latex-addicted faction of horror buffs. But otherwise this is a chiller of the old school: a film which shows almost nothing, but suggests the very worst. It's one of those horror films that plays on people's fears of, and fears for, children. At the very start, we see a group of smock-wearing orphans playing a creeping-up game, and we instantly sense that something dreadful will happen either to these children or because of them – or more likely, both.

The script plays routinely, but no less effectively for that, on children's other-worldly quality, especially where "imaginary friends" are involved: it invokes adults' creeping superstition that children can sense things that we can't (who says there aren't monsters in the cupboard?). Most of all, the film plays very cannily – not to say manipulatively – on anxieties about children's vulnerability, not to say mortality. It's an unfortunate accident that the film is released here during the disturbing police inquiry into the real-life Haut de la Garenne orphanage in Jersey, besides which Bayona's gently macabre film looks like The Magic Roundabout.

The Orphanage has little to do with such grim reality: it's a confection of pure fantasy, and depending on how you feel about the horror tradition, you'll see it as a slight drawback or a major film-buff bonus that the film is largely composed of borrowings from the canon. Bayona and Sanchez have assembled an exhaustive compendium of allusions to other films about doomed, eerie children in big labyrinthine houses: the rather better Spanish-made chiller The Others, Kubrick's The Shining, the peerlessly eerie Henry James adaptation The Innocents. Throw in Don't Look Now; Nigel Kneale's TV ghost tale The Stone Tape, whence all the business about psychics and their recording devices; and the definitive study in creaky floorboards at 3 am, Robert Wise's The Haunting.

The result is a somewhat mechanical but nonetheless effective entertainment that's not just old-school, but old-nursery-school, which is scarier. Bayona's film also recalls another haunted-children story, The Devil's Backbone by Mexican fantasy-horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro.

In fact, Del Toro produced The Orphanage, and it's rather strange to see him presiding over a film that's so much in his own image. The Orphanage is rather broader than Del Toro's work, and not nearly as fancifully imaginative: Bayona, on this evidence, comes across as a solid disciple, a competent pro rather than a true individual.

Nevertheless, what really makes The Orphanage distinctive is its denouement, in which Laura goes it alone and seeks closure on her motherhood issues (as they'll be saying when the film gets its inevitable Hollywood remake). Rueda carries off the final act rather magnificently, with a mixture of pained vulnerability and Sigourney Weaver-style tough-mum courage. The ending, with its distinct note of Catholic piety, is at once morbid and sentimental, even kitsch (it's a very Del Toro ending).

Unusually for a horror film, The Orphanage contrives to have you leave the cinema not shaking, but reaching for your handkerchief. It's a feelgood weepie chiller: boom, vlam, clickety-click, aahhh...

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...