Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 29, 2009)
While not as prolific a horror subject as zombies or vampires, creepy kids have been a genre standby for decades. We get a new entry in that field via 2009’s Orphan.
When her pregnancy results in miscarriage, Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) suffers from nightmares and various psychological concerns. Though somewhat reticent, she and husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt a child to add to their existing brood of Maxine (Aryana Engineer) and Daniel (Jimmy Bennett).
They choose Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a rather prim and proper but nonetheless sweet, charming little girl. She immediately hits it off with hearing impaired Max, but Daniel becomes jealous of all the attention his new sister receives. They become rivals, and Esther also runs into mockery and disdain at school.
None of this ends well for the parties who cross Esther. Not that things go much better for Kate or those who attempt to support her, either. As we learn more about Esther, a serious dark side emerges, and spooky weirdness comes along for the ride.
First of all: John and Kate? Seriously? Perhaps it was a coincidence that this film’s characters sport almost identical names to those tabloid reality buffoons, but it’s not a good thing for Orphan. The use of those names for parents creates some unintentional comedy.
Once we get beyond that goofy element, Orphan presents a pretty by the book thriller. Like more horror tales, this one telegraphs its scares and tone a bit too much. In particular, I could live without the opening scene. It depicts one of Kate’s nightmares, and it gets things off to such a horrific start that it doesn’t allow later attempts at terror to surprise us. If the movie concentrated more on Kate’s fragile psyche and left out the graphic material, it could’ve better caught us off-guard when further material of this sort emerged.
Not that Orphan ever leaves Esther’s dark side in doubt. A more subtle film would’ve let her evil emerge more slowly and created a greater sense of mystery. Why not approach the tale from Kate’s point of view and let us wonder if Esther really is a bad seed or if Kate’s just an emotional wreck?
Unfortunately, we’re never allowed to wonder if Esther’s evil or not. She’s clearly a violent nutbag, so that aspect of the tale becomes totally one-sided. It’s never a question of “if” there’s something wrong with Esther; it’s simply an issue of “when” she’ll go off and “what” she’ll do.
That lack of subtlety makes Orphan less compelling than it should be. Sure, plenty of horror flicks trot down an obvious path, but those don’t aspire to be anything else. After all, it’s not like the Friday the 13th flicks make us wonder who’s behind the mayhem.
Orphan aspires to a different genre, though. The Friday and Nightmare on Elm Street films earn their fans due to the nature of their violence. Nothing in Orphan tries to give us those bits of bloody creativity; Esther’s exploits are more appropriate for a little girl.
This means Orphan lacks any of the morbid thrills found in gorier films while it also fails to deliver the psychological terror of something like Rosemary’s Baby. Among famous flicks, Orphan clearly takes most of its cues from The Omen. I never much cared for that flick, largely for the same reasons that Orphan doesn’t work for me: a lack of subtlety or creativity.
At least Omen allowed for the possibility – however asinine – that Damien was just a misunderstood kid. We’re not given the same indulgence with Esther, and the movie suffers for it. We’re so painfully aware that Kate’s on target that John and the others Esther rooks just look like tools.
Because it ensures that we get such a one-sided viewpoint with no psychological uncertainty, Orphan keeps us vaguely interested for only one reason: the possibility we’ll eventually receive some shocking information about Esther’s identity. As it progresses, the film hints at darkness in her past, so we wonder if we’ll get a Damien-style surprise in the end.
Nope. Oh, a change-up does occur, but it’s not in the same supernatural realm, and it’s not particularly compelling. No, I won’t claim that I saw this twist in advance, but that doesn’t make it a memorable curveball.
Orphan does toss in some fairly good acting. While the film telegraphs Esther’s evil, young Fuhrman tries to add suspense and subtlety to the character. The film won’t allow this, but she does her best. Farmiga also creates a reasonably three-dimensional character; Kate is the only role with any dimensionality at all, and Farmiga adds satisfying layers to the part.
Not that any of this makes a difference. Orphan takes a well-worn genre and fails to explore it in a satisfying way. The movie suffers from its ham-fisted nature and doesn’t allow the material to develop in a natural manner.