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...

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