Mania Grade: D+
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- Movie: The Orphan
- Rating: R
- Running Time: 2 hrs. 3 min.
- Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer and Margo Martindale
- Written By: David Johnson
- Directed By: Alex Mace
- Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
THE ORPHAN Review
What's the Return Policy on Evil Children?
By Rob Vaux
July 23, 2009
Mania Review of THE ORPHAN(2009).
© Robert Trate
Just because Orphan is relentlessly bad doesn't mean it's not entertaining. The final half-hour, in particular, is so chock-full of loony toons campiness that all but the most heartless filmgoer would be hard-pressed to suppress his giggles. It dives completely into its ridiculous extremities without a second thought, prompting one to embrace it solely to see what staggering piece of goofiness it comes up with next. That makes for quite a ride--great fun if you're of the right mind--though don't expect anything approaching legitimate scares.
The difficulty on that front stems from its chosen sub-genre: the evil child movie. Evil children suffer from a number of logistical narrative problems, notably 1) their arms are too short; 2) they generally lack the proper anatomical knowledge to find the best stabby parts of the human body; 3) the success of their fiendish schemes depends largely upon the adults around them acting like blithering idiots. The grown-ups in Orphan happily oblige the latter point, as upscale Connecticut couple Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) adopt a seemingly sweet little Russian girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Of course, she isn't as sweet as she appears, which they might have known had they done a basic background check, quizzed the nun in charge (CCH Pounder) a little bit, or taken any of the intelligent, rational steps most normal people would have done in similar circumstances. But then there would be no movie, and we would have missed Esther's delightful array of creepy paintings, psychotic head games, and eventual homicidal lunacy.
To be fair, Orphan understands the psychological basis for all the fears Esther represents. The Colemans have fissures in their relationship--a miscarriage, a bout with alcoholism, a few dollops of marital infidelity--which their adopted child both exemplifies and exploits. What parent hasn't felt guilty about taking a little time for him- or herself? What parent hasn't had that horrifying moment when he just wants to pound a misbehaving child unconscious? Director Jaume Collet-Serra grasps the dynamic very well, and uses it to provide an interesting support network for Esther's wickedness. Fuhrman aids him with a polished, creepy performance that grounds her villainy in something resembling reality. (Credit Orphan, too, for staying away from the Doomed Pet cliché--slaughtering a pussy cat or golden retriever as a means of demonstrating the antagonist's instability--which most films of this ilk unfold with gleeful relish.)
Orphan's assets, however, prove powerless against the sheer overwhelming ridiculousness of the third act. Esther's reign of terror depends solely on people refusing to acknowledge that she may capable of dreadful things--in the face of all evidence and in some cases despite the fact that she's clearly trying to kill them. As the plot grows more and more preposterous, Collet-Serra turns to pulp shock tactics, which create an appreciable reaction but divorce the piece from the complexities it initially endeavored to develop. Esther's imaginative use of black-light paints, her adoptive parents' confused reactions and the final "shocking" secret about her past owe far more to Baby Jane than The Omen, and while the local police provide the expected levels of horror movie incompetence, there's such a sheer preponderance of evidence before them that to let Esther continue running around becomes a joke in and of itself. By the time she vamps out in a Wee Whore of Beverly Hills dress and starts putting the Lolita whammy on John, the film has clearly left the rails.
Again, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, provided you can find entertainment value in it. Horror fans with an eye for the ludicrous are apt to have a blast, while the undemanding can simply enjoy the periodic boo-gotcha jolts. But none of that comes with an accompanying respect for the film itself. We laugh at it, not with it, despite its earnest efforts to make its scenario work. The dog days of August are filled with similarly guilty movie pleasures; Orphan just starts the party a little early. You take your fun where you can find it this time of year, a fact for which this particular bit of silliness should be extremely grateful.