The Orphanage is a film that often makes something out of nothing — something being scaring the bejesus out of you. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez ratchet up the tension to such excruciating heights that, while you’re watching the film, your impulse is to scream out loud just to feel some sense of release. But there’s not really a bogeyman in The Orphanage andnot much blood; just insane intensity and a building sense of bad vibes. Staring into that face of inky blackness is actress Belén Rueda.

Known in her native Spain primarily as a star of television comedies, Rueda won a Goya award (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar) for her role as the lawyer fighting for a paralyzed Javier Bardem’s right to die in The Sea Inside. In The Orphanage, she plays a woman who returns to live in the rambling old house where she spent part of her childhood, only to have her own young son mysteriously go missing. Are the ghosts of the woman’s past exacting some form of revenge? Has her son been kidnapped? Or is she losing her mind? Thanks to Rueda’s finely tuned performance, all of those possibilities remain plausible throughout.

“When we were shooting the film, we were shooting for two films,” Rueda explained during an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “This is a film where you see real life, and then [you see] her real life, her mind life.”

That dual focus is something that Bayona wanted Rueda to maintain all the way through to the film’s ending, which, depending on the viewer, can be read either as a depressing, closed-book finale or as a hopeful and open-ended rebirth. Think of it as the difference between a period and a semicolon.

“I think there are two endings to the movie,” Bayona, who makes his feature debut with The Orphanage, said recently by telephone. “There are two readings — the fantastic reading and the realistic reading. If we had put just one ending, it would be like telling the audience what to think, and what we did is the opposite, to add something that opens a door to other interpretations.”

For Rueda, this ambiguity was the key to her role, as the actress wanted to keep viewers uncertain about exactly what her character was going through, and down what strange corridors her “mind life” might be leading her.

“I thought it was important, because she was going crazy, that she didn’t look like a madwoman,” Rueda explains. “When you are acting like a normal person being a very strange person, it’s better.”

“She understood the movie as something real, not like a genre movie,” Bayona says of his star. “She understood perfectly all the tragedy about the character, all the drama.”

Looking at Rueda’s performance alongside recent turns by Maribel Verdú(Pan’s Labyrinth), Penelope Cruz(Volver)and Paz Vega(Spanglish)?, American audiences could easily assume that actresses who evince an unassumingly earthy, turned-down glamour and sex appeal practically grow on trees in Spain. Nor is Bayona inclined to disagree.

“With some actors it’s impossible,” he says. “You know those American movies where all the actors are having a really bad time but they all look beautiful. And that’s something we just don’t do in Spain. One of the things I appreciate about Belén was that she didn’t have a problem with appearing on the screen not in a glamorous way. She would just say, ‘Don’t worry, that’s not what the story’s about.’?”

Rueda’s quasi-realist approach jibed with Bayona’s conception that the film should be full of pregnant silences and deep, dark shadows that often fill the screen with an impenetrable darkness. In particular, he was trying to avoid the contemporary clichés of horror filmmaking, hoping instead to give The Orphanage the austerity of a classical ghost story. Rueda, likewise, delighted in her director’s sense of undercutting expectations, denying the gore crowd their jollies while perhaps giving them more than they bargained for.

“Many people that like horror films have said they didn’t like the end because it’s not hot, there’s no blood or anything,” she says. “But I think that it’s better. In the movie, there are many scares and jumps, but I think the more important thing is that the audience feels the emotional moments.”

The Orphanageopens Fri., Dec. 28, in Los Angeles theaters.

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