All signs point to bad times when it comes to Orphan. The film is the billionth “demon child” movie to get the green light, and it actually casts Vera Farmiga as the troubled mother who must deal with the evil kid. Farmiga just starred in Joshua, the 2007 demon child film that co-starred Sam Rockwell. Déjà vu.
The movie employs every tired horror film cliché, many of them in the first 15 minutes. The “surprise” dream sequence starts things on an unreliable note, and the old “refrigerator door closes to reveal somebody behind it” trick shows up. Not to mention the well-worn “bathroom mirror cabinet closes to reveal somebody behind you in the reflection” gag. Taking all of this in, I was beginning to think director Jaume Collet-Serra was the very worst of unoriginal hacks. After all, he did do the terrible House of Wax remake.
Intentional or not, all of the tired clichés wore down my expectations, resulting in a major moment of surprise in the film’s final act. It doesn’t make the film a classic by any means, but it does turn the proceedings into a semi-respectable horror film. It’s a big, sometimes darkly funny fake-out that works.
Much of the reason for the film’s relative success is due to young actress Isabelle Fuhrman, who is genuinely creepy as Esther, the orphan touted in the film’s title. When Kate and John Coleman (Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) show up at an orphanage, Esther immediately stands out. Her paintings are “remarkable,” she dresses elegantly with fancy ribbons, and she talks like an inordinately intelligent child. She seems to be the perfect fit, and they take her home. Almost immediately, people start dying and breaking limbs around her.
The movie has all the family horror staples, like the tree house where the Colemans’ son (Jimmy Bennett) takes refuge and hides his porn—a place where he will surely almost perish. It has the handicapped sibling (Aryana Engineer) who is almost totally deaf and will be a major pawn in Esther’s game. And, of course, the father who doesn’t believe Esther is bad and eventually turns against his wife.
All of this is just a setup.
I thought I was watching a useless genre retread but, instead, it was a rather nifty thriller-mystery. Oh sure, it’s got a slasher element to it. Esther has much in common with Child’s Play’s Chucky, including a penchant for cutlery. The finale does feature one too many fake endings, and the scary music cues are a bit much. And a major plot point has Esther’s new brother and sister refusing to tell their parents bad things about her because she threatens them. Yeah, right. Kids tell on their siblings, no matter what body part an adoptive sister threatens.
Still, I have to forgive all of that stuff because I was fooled, and I really like it when a movie can trick me. It’s the sort of trick that makes you rethink the whole film, and things just start making sense.
I wonder if the young Fuhrman’s career will be able to continue without her presence giving moviegoers the heebie-jeebies. The kid has got the scary goods, and Esther is a role that will stick with her for a while. She might have to take a couple of years off and voice animated characters, as child actors often do, until the memory of this monster fades a bit. If she were to star alongside other kids in a live action film, I would always suspect her of being moments away from smashing somebody with a hammer.
So, yes, Orphan is yet another demon child movie, but you can file it with the good ones like The Bad Seed, the original The Omen, and Joshua. You can also file it with the likes of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, because it’s got an ending that will shock you silly.