Now here is an excellent example of why it is more frightening to await something than to experience it. "The Orphanage" has every opportunity to descend into routine shock and horror, or even into the pits with the slasher pictures, but it only pulls the trigger a couple of times. The rest is all waiting, anticipating, dreading. We need the genuine jolt that comes about midway, to let us see what the movie is capable of. The rest is fear.
Hitchcock was very wise about this. In his book-length conversation with Truffaut, he used a famous example to explain the difference between surprise and suspense. If people are seated at a table and a bomb explodes, that is surprise. If they are seated at a table, and you know there's a bomb under the table attached to a ticking clock, but they continue to play cards -- that's suspense. There's a bomb under "The Orphanage" for excruciating stretches of time.
That makes the film into a superior ghost story, if indeed there are ghosts in it. I am not sure: They may instead be the experience or illusion of ghosts in the mind of the heroine, and since we see through her eyes, we see what she sees and are no more capable than she is of being certain. That means when she walks down a dark staircase, or into an unlit corridor or a gloomy room, we're tense and fearful, whether we're experiencing a haunted house or a haunted mind. And when she follows her son into a pitch-black cave, her flashlight shows only a thread of light through unlimited menace.
The movie centers on Laura (Belen Rueda), who as a young girl was raised in the orphanage before being taken away one day and adopted. Now in her 30s, she has returned with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their young son Simon (Roger Princep) to buy the orphanage and run it as a home for sick or disabled children. She has memories here, most of them happy, she believes, but as images begin to swim into her mind and even her vision, she has horrifying notions about what might have happened to the playmates she left behind on the summer day 30 years ago.