The Orphanage

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Starring Bélen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, and Geraldine Chaplin. Rated 14A. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Somebody ought to kidnap the directors of the Saw and Hostel films, strap them into those torture chairs they're so fond of, attach some eyelid clamps from A Clockwork Orange, and make them watch The Orphanage for a week straight. Maybe then they'd understand that unrelenting sadism and over-the-top gore are no substitute for atmosphere and emotion when crafting effective horror films. As director Juan Antonio Bayona proves with his astonishing feature debut, you don't need a rusty scalpel to reveal the inner workings of the human heart.

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Coproduced by Guillermo Del Toro–and just as powerful as his dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth–The Orphanage revolves around the seemingly idyllic life of Spanish couple Carlos and Laura (Fernando Cayo and The Sea Inside's Belén Rueda), who plan to restore the seaside orphanage where Laura grew up and turn it into a home for disabled children. Their seven-year-old son, SimÓn (Roger Prí­ncep), enjoys playing with a pair of imaginary friends, but when he discovers a third, things start to go bad.

A scavenger hunt set up by the invisible Tomás leads SimÓn to uncover some harsh truths about himself, and to rebel violently against his adoring mother. When the boy goes missing, Laura hires a team of paranormal investigators to comb the orphanage's shadowy corridors. Screen legend Geraldine Chaplin's brilliant portrayal of the medium Aurora helps make the film's terrifying séance its centrepiece.

Rueda is totally captivating as the anguished Laura, fighting to keep her sanity intact while living a mother's worst nightmare. Beautiful and disturbing, The Orphanage puts viewers through an emotional wringer with its compelling blend of sorrow, suspense, and shocks. It might be the most haunting haunted-house flick ever made.

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