You don't need a truck load of chainsaws and a mass of machetes to make a gripping thriller, just go see 'The Orphanage'.

A fastidiously grim cinematic chiller, the Spanish language film comes out of the 'Pan's Labyrinth' school of fantasy thrillers.

The film opens with a group of children playing the Spanish equivalent of 'tip the can'. However within a few short minutes it's clear that this is no ordinary game as director Juan Antonio Bayona sets the tone for his creepy and atmospheric feature film debut. Laura ('The Sea Inside's' Rueda), the young leader of the pack, is being adopted and just as she's about to be told the news, her friends draw closer and closer, sneaking up on her every time she turns away, growing more spooky with every step.

The film jumps forward about three decades when Laura has returned to the grand old orphanage house but this time with her husband (Cayo) and son, Simon (Princep), in tow. Together they're going to live in the house which is being converted into a home for disabled children.

Before you can say 'The Innocents' or even 'The Others', Simon senses that they're not alone in the house and soon the only child befriends a group of demanding imaginary friends. The eerie apparitions plus Simon's inexplicable behaviour result in one of the film's few gory moments, with a fingernail meeting a grisly end, indicating to Laura that everything is about to change. The demands of the ghostly-folk increase with the passing of each day and a number of unnerving coincidences and uninvited events, including a visit from a very suspect social worker (Carulla), culminate in the child's disappearance.

At this point the Spanish film shares uncanny resemblances to the Welsh-shot 'The Dark' starring Mario Bello as the mother who goes to great lengths to find her missing child. However the key difference here is the style, pace and performances which combine to make 'The Orphanage' more believable than John Fawcett's film which at times pushed the thriller boundaries over into farcical territory.

Director Bayona has said that he had 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' in mind when he was directing 'The Orphanage' - exchanging the aliens for ghosts - and the performance from his leading actress Rueda makes this possible to imagine. Her intensely physical performance, where she is on screen in almost every scene, eventually teeters on the brink of madness yet she still manages to dominate every scene. Her performance is convincing as a testament to the emotional and psychological bond between mother and child. Desperate for help she turns to a medium (Charlie Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine) and afterwards is convinced about the dark forces at play.

Although based on the script by Sergio G Sanchez, written nearly 10 years ago, the film is unfortunately frighteningly topical as we watch this couple ripped apart by the unexplained disappearance of their child.

While there is little here to entertain true fans of gore, Bayona doesn't hold back when the plot calls forth darkness, whether that be a corpse, several corpses or car crash victims with half their faces missing (who by the way are still able to have a conversation…ok, maybe just a word or two, but impressive nonetheless).

The atmosphere of the pivotal scenes is amplified by Fernando Velazquez's orchestral score. Hand in hand with the subtle sound design, the two steadily build tension as the plot develops resulting in many a jumpy moment.

There's more than a touch of 'Pan's Labyrinth' mystery, mayhem and symbolism about 'The Orphanage' thanks to Guillermo del Toro, the film's producer. His two-time Oscar winning fantasy more than hinted at a sinister re-working of 'Alice in Wonderland'. In this case the film references 'Peter Pan', as the grown up Laura-come- Wendy figure attempts to rescue her lost boy.

The film is gripping in spite of or perhaps thanks to the exhausting journey that Laura, as the key protagonist, takes the audience on. However given the grief, suffering, desperation and horror, the film's climax is surprising and perhaps a little soft. Unlike 'Pan's…', the resolution is not a hopeful yet tragic one nor is it as chilling as the plot indicated.

As a fantasy thriller about the fragility of life, the heart-wrenching agony of loss, grief and the depth of a mother's love then few come close to the remarkable debut from the first time helmer of 'El Orfanato'.

Taragh Loughrey-Grant

'The Orphanage' will be screened every day as part of the Spanish Film Festival in the Irish Film Institute and director Juan Antonio Bayona will participate in a Q & A on the film, up until 30 March.