(Long Island, N. Y.) Forget flicks like The Bad Seed, The Omen, or The Good Son… Orphan is the ultimate evil kid movie. Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard) are married with two kids: a deaf daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), and a fairly annoying son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). On the surface, the Coleman family lives the good life. They have a large, beautiful home out in the countryside and no problem providing their children with everything that they could want.
I’m not sure what John does for a living (it appears he’s an architect), but it seems to be a cushy enough gig that Kate (a recovering alcoholic) can feel free to quit an assuming high-paying job teaching music at a college and just loaf around the house all day. Anyway, deciding that two children alone aren’t enough of a financial burden with only one working parent, the couple decides to try for kid #3, with disastrous results- the baby ends up stillborn.
The loss is hard on the family, but they decide to take the love they had saved up for the departed child and instead adopt. While visiting a home for orphaned girls, John and Kate meet Satan…um, rather, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), an adorable 9 year-old Russian girl with a charming yet unusual air about her. Immediately smitten, the couple haul Esther home and make her part of the family. All seems fine at first, but as time goes on, Kate starts noticing something wrong with Esther. First, it’s the little things, like the fact that she lies a bit and seems to know quite a lot about the birds and the bees for a kid her age. But eventually, things take a darker turn- children that cross Esther wind up getting hurt in “accidents.” Nuns that trash talk her wind up with hammers sticking out of their skulls. And let’s not forget that the last family to adopt her was killed in a fire. Oh my, this kid might be trouble!
But, in true horror movie tradition, Kate’s the only one that’s suspicious- while the kids blatantly see Esther for the manipulative psychopath she is, all the grown-ups think Kate’s a crazy drunken sod, enthralled as they are by sweet little Esther’s charms. Hey, even I wouldn’t take Kate’s word over Esther’s, and I’m blessed with the god-like omniscience granted to all movie audiences. The kid’s THAT good.
But since her husband won’t believe her and the children are scared stiff, Kate alone has to face off in a battle of wits against Esther, with the lives of her family hanging in the balance. But the evil child is far more cunning and devious then her diminutive stature would suggest, and she hides a shocking secret, a secret that may stack the deck against Kate and cost her everything. And yes, by “everything” I mean “including her life.”
I found Orphan to be a really effective horror/thriller. You could tell director Jaume Collet-Serra is very familiar with all the standard, tired horror movie tricks and tactics and tries to play off of them in rather amusing and unexpected ways. Fake scares are set up but pay off exactly the opposite of what you’ve been conditioned to expect by years of bad, clichéd horror movies. Deft camerawork helps to establish mood and time is taken to actually establish intriguing back stories for the characters. And the pacing of Orphan isn’t rushed, unlike most modern horror films- instead, tension is built slowly but steadily and brought to a boiling point by the film’s climax.
Dark humor abounds in Orphan, and when used it’s genuinely clever and funny. Collet-Serra also shows a knack for taking the absurd and presenting it seriously, all while punctuating it with a subtle, knowing wink to the audience. Displaying this type of respect to viewers is rare- a lesser director would embrace the easy out of over-the-top campiness in such a scene. And when Esther unleashes her wrath, Orphan becomes a movie that is not only willing to cross the line of good taste, but does so gleefully. This is a movie that will make you think “Oh no, it won’t go THERE.” And then it will. Over and over and over. Once I realized how far Orphan was willing to go in terms of shirking any shred of morality, the film made me do something I haven’t done in years: I started covering my face when I knew something horrible was coming. Because I knew it would probably be even worse than I was expecting.
Of course, a movie such as this lives and dies on its lead actress, and Isabelle Fuhrman is really impressive as Esther. She comes across as sweet and innocent at first, although far more articulate and knowledgeable of the world than your standard 9 year-old. She also manages a solid Russian accent. But when she reveals her dark side, you truly have to wonder about what this Isabelle Fuhrman girl is like in real life. I mean, what kind of kid can summon the dark forces necessary to play such a creature? Certainly no one normal, that’s for sure. It’s a given that the actress, really aged 12, isn’t going to be starring in any Disney flicks anytime soon.
The rest of the cast was excellent as well, but special note must be taken of Vera Farmiga as Kate, who effortlessly conveys a wide array of genuine emotions in her demanding role as a doomed mother, and Aryana Engineer (that’s really her last name?) as Max, a little deaf girl torn between her love for her family and Esther. Despite appearing to be no older than perhaps 6, the kid already has more accomplished acting abilities than the entire cast of 12 Rounds combined.
Before closing, I really have to address the controversy Orphan is generating- and it’s not coming from where you’d expect. Proving that we as a society are becoming way, way, WAY too politically correct, a film that depicts a child hammering nuns to death and putting the moves (yes, THOSE moves) on drunken middle-aged men is rising the ire not of church groups or parent organizations, but of the adoption community! Yes, it seems they think that this film will convince couples thinking of adopting that it’s probably safer to roll in Gravy Train and adopt a starving Pit Bull than a child. It’s really amazing how thin-skinned people are getting.
So, does Orphan signal that the modern horror scene will actually start producing quality movies once again? Probably not, as the genre has stagnated lately, overrun with pointless remakes and adaptations of mediocre Japanese films. But at least the occasional gem like Orphan (and hopefully the upcoming film The Collector) can tide me over until things pick up. Very recommended.