Though brutishly compelling in fits and starts, new spine-tingler Orphan is mostly a ham-handed patchwork of horror cliches that undermine the film's above-average performances and slick production value.
Boasting a cast led by off-kilter character actors Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard and ably supported by a ferocious new young actress named Isabelle Fuhrman, the movie feels far more evolved than director Jaume Collet-Serra's previous horror outing, the asinine House of Wax remake, but a reliance on well-worn fake scares (the kind where you jump not from fear but from an abrupt cue of dissonant strings and a startling camera movement) and a perfunctory, wholly predictable climax abates the considerable good will earned by the well-developed Bad Seed scenario.
The pic starts off promising with a shocking dream sequence lead-in that brings to mind Cronenberg or Sisters-era De Palma. It's a gruesome opening that cogently sets up the plot's engine: Kate Coleman (Farmiga) has recently miscarried, and she wants desperately to have another child (she already has two).
She and her husband John (Sarsgaard) decide to adopt an older kid, and when they visit the orphanage, they're immediately smitten with Esther (Fuhrman), a precocious, vaguely odd 8-year-old Russian. Esther is well-mannered, suspiciously articulate and a prodigiously gifted painter and pianist. They take her home to the children, who react to Esther in two opposing ways. Younger daughter Max latches onto the new sibling, while savvy tween Daniel senses something off about the girl and is repelled (an uncomfortable dinner table sequence ends with Daniel barking "She is not my fucking sister!").
Unfortunately for Daniel, bad things tend to happen to those who haven't bought in to Esther's schtick. She pushes a bullying girl off the jungle gym. She screams uncontrollably whenever anyone touches the ribbons tied around her neck and wrists. She sets fire to Daniel's treehouse while he's in it. She harbors a secret that she's willing to kill for, and eventually she does. In short, there's something very wrong with the girl.
Kate senses it, John doesn't. In classic fashion, Esther's arrival is the catalyst for the surfacing of the married couple's issues (she's a recovering alcoholic, he's a recovering philanderer). Kate's alcoholism becomes a major factor as she comes closer to discovering Esther's true nature. Her husband and therapist have no faith in her, believe she's started drinking again and want to send her to rehab. Meanwhile, Esther has her own amorous plans for John.
As the plot hurls towards the inevitable conclusion, the secret becomes spoiled by Collet-Serra's lack of subtlety. (Stop reading now if you don't want the twist revealed).
Esther is actually a 33 year-old escaped mental patient who has a physical condition that makes her appear much younger, and her plan is to kill Kate and seduce John. Regrettably, the director has telegraphed the clues to such an extent that the Big Reveal feels limp and incidental. The climactic confrontation between Kate and Esther is a dull, generic battle involving the usual motif of what amounts to an extended game of hide and seek. One particular moment stands out for its idiocy and laziness.
Kate is crawling along the glass ceiling of a green house, while Esther fires a gun at Kate from within. Kate falls through the glass and lands on Esther, who is temporarily knocked out. We know she's not dead, because in these kinds of movies the villain must always be shot, set on fire, have her neck broken--something gruesome and definitive. When's the last time a murderous psychopath died from internal injuries?
Apparently Kate doesn't watch horror movies, so when she lands on Esther, she simply grabs Max and leaves the greenhouse, apparently assured by the fact that Esther's eyes are closed. She doesn't grab the gun, she doesn't check for a pulse. Of course, Esther pops back up and fake dies twice more, before Kate finally delivers the death blow after screaming "I'm not your fucking mommy!" (a line that, oddly enough, is plagiarized from The Ring 2, an equally terrible horror movie).
This kind of stupid pandering and unimaginative plot resolution is what sinks the movie. For those looking for a real scare, it's a waste of time. For those wanting something campy to laugh at, it also falls short; it's too serious for its own good, but not intelligent enough to own its self-appointed gravitas.
The one thing that makes Orphan worth seeing is Fuhrman; her physical transformation in the last 20 minutes is something remarkable. She possesses wisdom beyond her years, and her performance is so mature and aware that when the twist was revealed, it was easy to assume that Fuhrman is actually 33 years old. In a better movie, the young actress (who is a 12-year-old American) would be guaranteed a slew of awards and recognition for her work. As it stands, the main benefit will no doubt be awestruck casting directors placing the girl in future movies that are more worthy of her talent.
Share this article: