Years ago, before he was pitting giant robots against massive monsters in Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro made small, spare, even elegant horror movies. He didn’t direct this one (it was written by Sergio G. Sanchez and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, who went on to collaborate on last year’s tsunami epic The Impossible), but he oversaw it as a producer, and it certainly bears his stamp.
The building of the title is where Laura (Belen Rueda) grew up, and she returns as the mother of an adopted son to revive the old building as an orphanage for disabled children. On the abandoned grounds, her adopted son Simon claims he has met a new friend, a boy named Tomas who wears a sack over his head. When Simon disappears, Laura and her husband Carlos begin to wonder if Tomas is real. The pragmatic Carlos seeks scientific answers, but the empathetic Laura turns to a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) to solve the mystery.
The story, complete with its creaky, bumps-in-the-night house and sinister-nanny type, may seem familiar, but Sanchez and Bayona effectively build an aura of dread so that the shocks, when they do come, are real jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Rueda (The Sea Inside) holds the film together as a mother who will go to any length to prove her love for her child. In many del Toro movies, there are haunted, ghostly children who pay for the sins of their elders, but here’s one where the elder is willing to sacrifice everything to redeem her son, which gives the movie a heart-rending quality throughout.