In motion pictures, it’s a widespread belief that children are the embodiment of pure evil. Perhaps not all kids are the spawn of Satan, but horror filmmakers realize that evil disguised behind the eyes of a seemingly innocent child is an effective way of amplifying the scare factor. Into this genre now steps 2009’s Orphan. Instead of being an overly effective suspense piece, however, this is a predominantly boring, meandering film which suffers from repetition and poor scripting. If the creepy kid horror genre is in need of resuscitation, this subpar affair will not provide it.
The plot, in a nutshell, concerns Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard). They’re married with two kids, but Kate’s recent miscarriage has put a strain on their relationship that’s already burdened by John’s infidelity and Kate’s battle with alcoholic tendencies. Seeking to introduce a new child into their family, the couple decides to adopt. During a visit to the local orphanage, John connects with a strange yet astonishingly intelligent 9-year-old Russian girl named Esther (Fuhrman). As you may or may not have guessed, Esther is no ordinary child, and seems to have been specially ordered from the Eastern European School of Creepy Kids. She distinguishes herself from those around her not only because she’s mature beyond her years, but because she also appears trapped in a 19th Century time-warp with her fondness for Victorian doll dresses and ribbons. For her introductory scenes, Esther of course appears beguiling and innocent. Once she’s adopted by John and Kate, the film then sets out to defy our preconceptions of how eerie and horrifying this little girl can be. And good heavens, is she creepy.
If it means anything — and in dealing with the consistently awful creepy kid subgenre, it likely does — Orphan is not the worst of its kind. It’s atmospheric enough and contains a number of generally unsettling sequences, not to mention there’s a solid attempt to delve into the characters’ lives so that they comes across as more than blood-spurting automatons. Yet, in spite of these strengths, the film remains a ridiculous, by-the-numbers horror show. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra poorly orchestrates so many clichéd “Boo!” moments designed to make the audience jump (such as mirror reveals), on top of faux scares in which a viewer believes they’re about to jump but — surprise! — nothing’s there. The repetition is irritating and laughable. These moments are hardly effective, too, since the music, with its rising disharmonies and sudden crashes, suggests there’s a “scare” on the way. Orphan is also predictable from a narrative standpoint. It’s easy to guess Esther’s next move well before she makes it. And for the climax, the filmmakers call upon the most embarrassing genre convention imaginable: Giving superhuman abilities to a weak character. At least the final showdown is relatively entertaining. Highly predictable, yet still satisfying nonetheless.
In addition to all this, the characters tend to act in whatever way serves the plot best. For example, it makes no sense for Kate and John to adopt Esther when she’s clearly out of synch with the rest of the family. Furthermore, Kate is sometimes a raging alcoholic, but at other times an overly caring mother. Infidelity issues are raised in the first half, but they hardly surface again. At times, John is a trusting, loving husband and father, but at other times he’s both ignorant and disloyal. Not to mention these characters are so stupid. What parents never see their child undress? What parents allow their child to skip dental appointments, and basically live in solitude in a mansion-like home? Why would no-one question Esther’s ribbon accessories or her anti-social behavior? Furthermore, John sets a new standard for Horror Movie Dumbass — he’s bizarrely enamored with this Russian girl (even when she rats him out for flirting with their neighbor!) and ignores his wife’s desperate warnings. All of this is coupled with a major violation of Roger Ebert’s main tenets for an unsuccessful narrative: If the main plot-point could be easily resolved — in this case, a mandatory medical examination should’ve been conducted by a state-run child protective services agency prior to approving the adoption — everything falls apart.
Credit where credit is due — in the acting department, things aren’t too shabby at all. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard share solid chemistry which makes their relationship believable. Isabelle Fuhrman is a terrific find: She’s cute and charming, which makes her behavior far more unsettling. The convincing Russian accent adds to her unnerving presence as well. For a horror movie of this type to boast such terrific performances is nothing short of a miracle. Yet, if one sets aside the solid acting, the interesting final plot twist, a few effective set-pieces and the fact it still works on a pretty basic level, Orphan remains a generic, cliché-ridden suspense film that strains credulity to the breaking point. If you’re in the midst of a strained marriage and are considering adopting a Soviet child, you may find this to be a terrific horror outing. As for everyone else . . . nah, it ain’t worth the effort to get through these two distinctly mediocre hours.