(In anticipation of the coolest day of the year, this month-long series will offer one recommended horror flick a day up through Oct. 31.)
THE ORPHANAGE (2007). Juan Antonio Bayona's directorial debut arrived with the "Pan's Labyrinth Seal of Approval" — that is to say, it received the blessing of Pan writer-director Guillermo del Toro by way of a "produced by" credit — and it's clear it deserved the lofty honor. Frequently, the screenplay by another newbie, Sergio G. Sanchez, seems like it's merely a compendium of stellar moments from other horror hits: In addition to Pan, there are elements that strongly recall The Devil's Backbone (also by del Toro), The Others, The Innocents, The Omen and — I hesitate to add — Friday the 13th. Eventually, though, the homages coalesce to create a deeply absorbing and heavily atmospheric yarn that offers several noteworthy plot spins. In a commanding performance, Belen Rueda stars as Laura, who returns to the now-abandoned orphanage where she was raised as a child. With her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) in tow, she moves into the building with the hopes of reopening it in order to serve ill and handicapped children. But the bumps in the night begin almost immediately, with Simon insisting that anything abnormal is being caused by his new imaginary friends. As Laura digs deeper, she learns that the unusual circumstances tie back to incidents that occurred around the time she herself was a young girl residing at the institution. There are a few moments that employ the tried-and-true shock technique, but for the most part, Bayona expertly builds upon the unsettling sense of menace that's established from the start.