So at this point we have to recognize that foreigners are the only ones actually making scary movies these days - Spain, Mexico, Korea, Japan, even the French are making good horror movies right now while in this country everything's either a sensationalized mishmash of gore and CGI or a remake of something foreign. So until we get our act together here, it's refreshing to see a new horror movie that succeeds by simply presenting a solid story with good characters, a strong emotional subtext, and moody, precisely-executed scares.
Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to the sprawling mansion she lived in years earlier as an orphan herself; once there, her son Simon proceeds to exercise his overactive imagination by interacting with some new imaginary friends...or are they? (Three guesses and the first two don't count). From there what I expected (based on the marketing) to be a fairly tame ghost story in the vein of The Others proceeds in creepy, unexpected, and ambitious directions.
What I especially liked about this movie are the scenes in which director Juan Antonio Bayona proves that he's going to be a strong new voice in horror movies by showing a confident hand in his orchestration of suspense and shocks. (SPOILERS) I loved the scene in which the old lady is hit by a truck and maimed; it's become a cliche to have a character suddenly bulldozed by a car, but Bayona manages to make it surprising, then compounds the brilliant awfulness of the scene by showing, in a painfully protracted close-up, the old lady's destroyed face - but only after teasing us with a tiny glimpse to make us think that the visual is going to be left to our imagination. The result is something filled with a huge amount of dread and guilt, and it's masterfully choreographed. Another, later scene, in which a psychic (a terrific Geraldine Chaplin) goes into a trance and attempts to communicate with the ghosts haunting the estate is a terrific mix of performance, sound design, and suggestion.
It's interesting to note (SPOILER AGAIN) that just as in Pan's Labyrinth, this movie resolves a heartbreaking, horrific situation by allowing its lead character to die and end up in a better place. Is this a theme peculiar to filmmakers with Catholic backgrounds? In all the Japanese ghost stories that I've seen lately, every ghost in the afterlife is pretty cranky and not fun to be around(Ringu, Ju-On, etc.).