Movie Review – Orphan (2009)

I really expected to dislike Orphan (2009), directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, though he had previously helmed the underrated House of Wax (2005) remake. What appeared from trailers like a rip-off of The Bad Seed (1956) and The Omen (1976), trying to profit from yet another “creepy kid” story, offered little to whet my appetite. It tells the story of a couple who adopt a little girl who, of course, turns out to be a psycho. I was pleasantly surprised to find, then, that Orphan too turns out to be much more than I had anticipated.

The film’s biggest asset is the convincing performance of its lead child star, Isabella Fuhrman, who plays the cunning and murderous Esther. This talented young actress carries the film and really does exude wisdom and understanding beyond her years, and creates a worthy counterbalance to Vera Farmiga in her role as Kate, Esther’s adoptive but suspicious mother. The rest of the roles are also well-cast, particularly the adorable Aryana Engineer, who plays the deaf and mute Max, the couple’s youngest daughter.

Orphan’s script has many strong elements within it. The film opens with a dream sequence that plays on its illogical nature through set changes and by having Peter Sarsgaard play both the doctor and the husband simultaneously as Kate is in labor. In the title credits the letters change from traditional print to chaotic, black-lit smears, in a way which ties nicely into the story later on. Also, the relationship between Esther and Max is very believable, and the use of sign language is implemented throughout the plot to great effect.

When scenes take a turn for the macabre they do so with a vengeance. Kids are not always scary in horror films, even when they’re supposed to be, for it is difficult to imagine a kid being able to accomplish too many grisly tasks before being stopped by a well-placed kick to the head. However, it is Esther’s cunning which is her greatest strength. She is smarter than those around her, expertly manipulating people and situations to her advantage – and the best part is that her plans sometimes go awry and she must think quickly to resolve new threats.

However, despite all these strengths, the film is not without weaknesses. For every great scene, and there are many of these, there is an awful one, or at least enough which are so mediocre and clichéd as to bring down the intensity of the film. How many times are we to watch someone close a medicine cabinet only to find someone standing next to them in the mirror’s reflection, providing yet another tired and ineffective jump scare? We even get the cue music to let us know we were supposed to be scared just then, in case we missed it. This happens, mind you, in the beginning before anything remotely creepy has happened. Likewise, when one of Esther’s bullies sees that she is no longer on a swing she suddenly feels threatened and creeps through a playground structure cautiously. The audience knows that Esther is dangerous, but there is no reason for this character to believe so. The tension of the film gets comically cranked to eleven as we see quick shots of kids on monkey bars, and a boy coming down a slide is used as yet another jump scare, and the whole scene comes off as fairly ridiculous. I claim no deep knowledge of filmmaking, but as a viewer these tactics signal that the director lacks the confidence that he has effectively captured his audience. Other scenes, and especially the final one, tumble into ever more Hollywood clichés, and this is unfortunately after a very creepy, effective twist.

I can’t help but imagine what a masterpiece this could have been if characters and their personal demons had trumped the Hollywood ending and fake scares. Orphan is a movie worth seeing and deserving of respect, but in the end it is a missed opportunity.

Grade: C+