RATING |

A doom-laden Spanish thriller about the ghostly goings-on of castoff children,

The Orphanage

isn't as scary as Guillermo Del Toro's similarly themed

The Devil's Backbone

. But Del Toro has lent his name to

The Orphanage

anyway, "presenting" it in the manner of Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, in hopes that the

Pan's Labyrinth

maestro's name will lure the crowds.

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage stars Belen Rueda (from The Sea Inside) as Laura and Fernando Cayo as Carlos, a young, handsome wife and husband who have purchased a long-shuttered orphanage to turn into a home for disabled kids. The couple have brought their own 7-year-old, Simon (Roger Princep), along too. He, in turn, has brought his imaginary friends to play with. Running around the rocks and coves on the nearby beach, little Simon discovers new imaginary friends to play with, too.

At least his parents think they're imaginary.

The Orphanage is soaked in darkness and dread - even when the camera chases its cast across glinting shorelines and the lovely garden of the stately old edifice. But while Bayona knows how to push our scare buttons, the film lacks a certain psychological depth, even as its main character, Laura, grapples with the ghosts - literal and figurative - of her own past.

You see, as a child she lived in this place, the Good Shepherd Orphanage. She was a foundling; at the same age Simon is now, an adoptive family came to collect her. What happened to her playmates after her departure, she wonders. Where are they now?

And who is Tomas, Simon's new, invisible pal? And then - well, Simon, who is sickly and needs his medicine, disappears.

Tapping into deep parental fears and fantasies, and bringing a super-creepy old woman (she claims to be a social worker), a police psychologist and Geraldine Chaplin as a psychic into the proceedings, The Orphanage is never less than engaging. Here and there it's even genuinely frightening.

But that sense of jolting fear, of enervating surprise, never hits. Bayona's moves are deft, the atmosphere oozes with anxiety and grief, but the big payoff - like the big payoff in The Sixth Sense, another film The Orphanage has more than a bit in common with - never comes.

The Orphanage *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. With Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep and Geraldine Chaplin. Distributed by Picturehouse. In Spanish with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: R (children in jeopardy, violence, adult themes, scares)

Playing at: Ritz at the BourseEndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.