A Review of the Horror Movie 'Orphan'

Orphan movie poster

Warner Bros.

Once a decade, Hollywood seems to unleash a major theatrical "evil child" movie. The '50s had The Bad Seed, the '60s had Village of the Damned, the '70s The Omen, the '80s Children of the Corn and the '90s The Good Son. While the first decade of the 21st century has had The Ring, it's taken until 2009 for a traditional (non-ghost) killer kid flick to receive a wide release. Orphan, however, was well worth the wait, its instant guilty-pleasure appeal placing it squarely in the pantheon of evil kid pics.

The Plot of Orphan

John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) Coleman are a successful thirty-something couple — he an architect and she a composer — with two kids and a huge wooded home. All is not rosy in the marriage, however: Kate is a recovering alcoholic, John has a history of infidelity and most recently, they suffered a miscarriage of their unborn daughter. In an attempt to fill the void in their lives, the couple decides to adopt.

At the orphanage, they stumble upon Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine-year-old girl who separates herself from the pack, refusing to take part in the dog-and-pony show for potential parents. Intrigued by her maturity, intelligence, charm and talent at painting, they adopt her, taking her home three weeks later.

Little is known about Esther other than she's Russian and her parents died in a fire. She's polite and clever, though, and despite an odd penchant for outdated "Little Bo Peep" clothing, she appears to be the perfect child. She takes John and Kate's daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), under her wing, quickly learning sign language to communicate with the younger, hearing-impaired girl. Older son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), however, isn't so quick to warm up to his new sister (the clothing doesn't help) and refuses to stand up for her when she's bullied at school.

It turns out that Daniel's instincts are correct. As the film's tagline states, "There's something wrong with Esther." Max and Daniel notice flashes of darkness in her demeanor, as mysterious "accidents" seem to befall anyone who crosses her, but by the time Kate begins to suspect something, Esther has sufficiently threatened the kids into silence. Kate's fears grow, however, although her efforts to thwart her adoptive daughter are hampered by John's refusal to believe that a child could be so evil. It's up to Kate, then, to stop Esther's wicked ways without painting herself as the evil one.

The End Result

Cinematically, Orphan offers nothing new; it follows the standard "killer kid movie" format (playing much like Omen IV), from the child's outward cordiality to the ramp-up of sinister incidents that follow her to the Omen-style motherly suspicions that are discounted by the doting dad. Unoriginality aside, though, this is a perfect summer film — brainless, shallow, manipulative fun. Unlike 2007's limited-release evil kid pic Joshua, Orphan doesn't take itself too seriously. It doesn't aspire to be high art, convey a deep message or be anything but a breezy popcorn flick.

With that aim in mind, Orphan is a rousing success that just might have you pumping your fist and cheering like you're watching Monday Night Football. Admittedly, the movie is shameless, pushing emotional buttons designed to drag you in. I mean, how can you not feel a darkly humorous empathy for the tiny, adorable Max, deaf and cowering in the shadow of a homicidal Esther, afraid to close her eyes when she sleeps? It's like watching a kitten shoved into a cage with a pit bull.

After a slow start — including a grisly, tasteless opening — the movie settles into a devilishly involving groove once Esther's dark side emerges. We know what to expect, and yet the well-drawn characters keep things from becoming stale. With her striking, retro look and cold sociopathic demeanor, Esther is a horror icon in the making, and Fuhrman's performance — from her Russian accent to her sneaky duplicity — is pitch perfect.

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made his American debut with 2005's House of Wax remake, brings to Orphan a similarly edgy artistry — perhaps too edgy for the material, frankly, with unnecessary shaky cameras and blur effects that add little of substance. He tries a bit too hard to thrill, throwing in several cheap "boo" scares to create a level of tension that's already there. Through most of the film, though, he stays out of the way, occasionally emerging to play up the campy horror potential — cue the dark and stormy night — and generally delivers genuine thrills.

Plot-wise, you have to overlook some jumps in logic and the fact that John might be the most oblivious father in cinematic history, but such is the nature of this sort of film. Citizen Kane this ain't. Active thought isn't necessary and might actually detract from your entertainment. Esther's big "secret," for instance, is fairly predictable given a little thought, but the gimmickry of a twist ending isn't the reason to see Orphan; it's the scrumptiously evil journey up to that point that makes for such a good time.

The Skinny

  • Acting: A (Fuhrman embodies her character with a flair beyond her years.)
  • Direction: B (Director at times overreaches, but generally delivers palpable tension and scares.)
  • Script: B (Plot holes are patched by a brisk pace full of moments of deliciously dark, campy humor — intentional or not.)
  • Gore/Effects: B (Modest gore is rarely gratuitous — and doesn't need to be.)
  • Overall: B+ (A great way to spend a steamy summer evening.)

Orphan is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and rated R by the MPAA for disturbing violent content, some sexuality, and language. Release date: July 24, 2009.