"The Orphanage" (2007)
The niftiest aspect of "The Orphanage," an uncannily good Spanish haunted house movie directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by genre favorite Guillermo del Toro, is that, at its heart, it's a rather old-fashioned melodrama that just so happens to be wrapped inside of a ghost story. It's like "The Shining" meets "All That Heaven Allows," with an emphasis on repressed psychological trauma. Laura (Belen Rueda from "The Sea Inside") decides, for perverse reasons that pay off dramatically, to purchase the orphanage where she grew up (since then, she has adopted a young boy) and refurbish it, to give other unfortunates a chance at a normal upbringing. Of course, the ghosts of the past, both literal (a small, sack-faced boy named Tomas that looks like a nightmare creation out of "Little Big Planet") and metaphoric (said traumas) spring up almost immediately. What follows is equal parts tragedy and boo-gasp horror (there are a couple of moments that will elicit audible screams from even the most hardened moviegoer). The movie has a melancholic feel of resignation and an absolutely heartbreaking final act, where what may have seemed like cheap scares early on pay off beautifully. "The Orphanage," artfully directed by Bayona in muted colors and embellished with a suitably haunting score by Fernando Valazquez, is a slow-burn of a haunted house movie, as emotionally engaging as it is terrifying, and a genuine modern classic in the genre.
"The Orphanage" isn't the only recent film to take a spin at the genre: although the likes of "The Haunting in Connecticut" aren't really worth mentioning, del Toro himself produced an excellent example in "The Devil's Backbone," while Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others" is terrific too. The John Cusack vehicle "1408" is pretty decent as well, even if it loses its way near the end, while some on staff have a soft spot for Walter Salles' "Dark Water." Further back, the original "The Amityville Horror" is worth a look, while the original "Evil Dead" is more of a haunted house film than a zombie picture. 1981's "The Entity," with Barbara Hershey, and the 1980 Canadian flick "The Changeling," with an excellent central performance from George C. Scott, are both worth a look as well. And for lighter takes on spooky happenings, Neil Jordan's "High Spirits" is deeply flawed, but enjoyable, and Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice" is probably the definitive haunting comedy.
-- Gabe Toro, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Adam Sweeney, Mark Zhuravsky, Danielle Johnsen, Oliver Lyttelton