Fantasia 2009 – ‘Orphan’

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Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

When you see a major studio’s logo in front of a horror film, you’re generally in for one of three things: neutered PG-13 dreck (The Uninvited); crass torture porn (Captivity); or an unspeakably generic slasher (the Friday the 13th reboot). Not only that, but all three forms are burdened by considerations that cheaper, nimbler horror productions often shed: excess characters and plot threads, overuse of expository dialogue, and the now-obligatory appearance of A Twist At The End. All of these things appear in Jaume Collet-Serra’s third feature (following House of Wax and, uh, Goal II), weighing it down and keeping it from being quite as memorable as it hopes to be. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining and effectively creepy film that stands out thanks to a set of strong performances, the concept’s novelty and a refreshing, go-for-broke hard-R approach.

One perfect example of major-studio bloat comes when we learn that Kate Coleman (a very good Vera Farmiga) not only suffered from having a stillborn third child, but also has a history of alcoholism, and is troubled by her husband John’s (Peter Sarsgaard) history of infidelity. That’s at least two more elements than the character needs. The overly-troubled Kate decides to adopt in order to fill the gap left by the deceased child, and picks the eerily precocious Esther (Isabelle Fuhrmann), who gradually turns out to be a sociopathic nightmare, a fact that dawns on Kate considerably earlier than on John, partially due to the trust issues in their marriage, but mostly because Esther works carefully to endear herself to her adoptive father. Meanwhile, Esther also has fun toying with her new siblings: a deaf little sister, Max (Aryana Engineer) and a bratty older brother, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett).

After a dodgy first ten minutes, Orphan settles in nicely with Esther’s arrival, with pros Farmiga and Sarsgaard allowed to dig into Kate and John’s troubled history and defiant hopes as they expand their family (though the inclusion of Esther’s carefully placed bands of cloth are groaningly obvious). Collet-Serra has fun playing with their renewed optimism, juxtaposing it with scenes of gleeful malevolance. The real highlight, though, is Fuhrmann – she alternates between forced but believable sweetness and homicidal rage with panache, making for a nice contrast with the fairly bland archetypes presented by her new siblings. When Esther’s cards are finally shown (about ten minutes too soon, in my opinion), she sells it, which is no small feat, one aided by some truly creative effects makeup. A major studio won’t provide us with a better horror villain all year.

By the final reels, Orphan unravels almost entirely, with Sarsgaard’s character required to act in obscenely outlandish ways against his wife (the way the film’s social mechanisms relentlessly treat Kate as an alcoholic and unfit mother borders on Von Trier levels of sadistic plot manipulation – a plus!) and a surplus of convenient timing. (It’s also hampered by a never-ending climactic sequence. I thought we got rid of those in the mid-90s?). As a result, Orphan is best appreciated for what it is: a well-executed, very dumb, and deeply twisted film that gets by on a lot of charm and an unceasing desire to unsettle. And by “charm,” I mean the reckless and deliberate endangerment of children.
Simon Howell

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