REVIEW: Orphan [2009]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 123 minutes | Release Date: July 24th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer(s): David Leslie Johnson / Alex Mace (story)

“Look at the snow orphan—snorphan?”

Surprise, surprise, Orphan actually isn’t that bad. Who would have thought something that appeared to be a bad rehash of The Omen could truly entertain? I guess the ability to acquire the services of a couple on the cusp of A-list status actors in Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga should have raised an eyebrow, but honestly I still had many reservations. In fact, I knew the “twist” before sitting down in the theatre—something that I believe enhanced my enjoyment rather than lessened it. Perhaps this knowledge made the proceedings appear more comical than they should have been and maybe took away from some of the horror aspects, however, it also invested me in the tale to see how the revelation would be discovered. The acting is impressive across the board and the visuals are enjoyable for the most part. I loved the opening sequence bridging reality and dream, as well as the utilization of black light, (hokily alluded to with the opening WB icon), but the fake scares—and there are many—started to anger me a bit.

This is not the type of horror I enjoy normally; I tend to gravitate more towards the fantastical or supernatural. That said, though, I understand the gimmicks used and the techniques relied upon. Director Jaume Collet-Serra appeared to want to subvert some preconceptions by giving us multiple instances of slow tracking shots towards a blind spot with music swelling louder and louder only to reveal … nothing. I see what he was attempting—trying to get the audience off guard—but all it ended up doing was making me numb to the moments that actually delivered. Rather than be affected from the “jump scares” I was more entertained by the brutal violence utilized. Not many films of this ilk are R-rated these days, so when you do get one, it is somewhat a breath of fresh air. There are some definite pedophilic elements at play, very strong language, (used often to comical effect), and the desire to make what few deaths there are as memorable as possible. I mean, come on, if you have a hammer and a body prone and ready for a whack, why not make sure the deed gets done by smashing away a few extra times?

I really bought into the beginning due to the fantastic work on the part of Farmiga. The devastation wrought on her face after a stillbirth is unavoidable. Here is a mother of two that had so much love for her unborn child, she crawled into a shell of depression at the loss, needing an outlet for the pain and bottled up emotions never able to be showered on the child. Her detachment from the family, especially her husband, is evident, as is the pure joy at finding young Esther in the orphanage, thinking that her love could finally be released. Farmiga embodies the role so completely that, if I remember correctly, she instinctively signs “thank you”, (her daughter is deaf), when leaving the orphanage. The moment has no need for it as her hearing impaired child is at home, but it is definitely something that character would do unconsciously. She is also very good opposite Sarsgaard and his inability to stand by her when the truth about Esther begins to show through. At times it seems he is phoning the performance in, but ultimately he does a good job; maybe he is just overshadowed by his counterpart.

Rounding out the acting are two brilliant turns from the youngsters. Aryana Engineer plays Max with professionalism and realism. Deaf in real life, she is amazingly able to portray the fear and anxiety that comes with knowing what her new sister is capable of. Unable to tell anyone, both due to her handicap and the threats on her and the family’s lives, she must lie and say everything is okay. But her subtle cowering in fright at the sight of Esther in her door is quite palpable. Speaking of Esther, you can’t deny the performance of twelve-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman. The most recent example of what parents are willing to allow their children to do for money, (Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno would be proud), she is effectively creepy and dangerous in her lack of a moral compass and instinctual need to survive. More robotic and calculated at the start, it is the final act, where her true identity is revealed, that shines. The malice and rage buried beneath an angelic façade is finally out in the open; a master manipulator and seductress, Fuhrman will turn some heads and hopefully have a career before her without being typecast in the genre.

Orphan begs to memory the slasher flicks of the 80s like Child’s Play rather than the psychological terrors I relate to more. I won’t let that deter me from recommending the film to those out for some blood because the talent involved cannot be denied. The script can be very generic at times, yet glimmers of surprise come through every once in awhile. With a “twist” that may not be too well hidden, the carnage doesn’t stay only with disposable roles like one would expect in a movie such as this. I’ll just say that the stars aren’t safe from knife work, nor a glimpse at their mortality. In the end, though, it is still nothing more than a good night out for some bloody fun. But, then, when did that become a bad thing?

[1] (L-R) VERA FARMIGA as Kate and ISABELLE FUHRMAN as Esther in Dark Castle Entertainment’s horror thriller “Orphan,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Rafy
[2] PETER SARSGAARD as John and VERA FARMIGA as Kate in Dark Castle Entertainment’s horror thriller “Orphan,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Rafy
[3] ISABELLE FUHRMAN as Esther in Dark Castle Entertainment’s horror thriller “Orphan,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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