Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard play Kate and John Coleman, a married couple with two children. They tried to have a third, but Kate miscarried late in the pregnancy, which led to depression, which led to drinking, which led to marital conflict. John's affair didn't help. Attempting to get their lives back on track - and also to find a place to put the love they had for their unborn daughter - they decide to adopt an older child. Traveling to a Catholic-run orphanage, they meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a young Russian girl whose manners are as impeccable as her wardrobe is outdated. Everyone hits it off, and a few weeks later, Esther is the newest member of the Coleman family.
That's where trouble starts. (Hey, it's a horror flick.) Esther seems a little jealous of the two other children. She refuses to take off the ribbons that are constantly around her neck and wrists. She lies and manipulates. "Accidents" start to occur. There is a death. Kate wonders if Esther may have caused it. She begins researching the child's past, only to uncover some unexpected results. But the kid is crafty. As Kate tries to convince John that Esther is psycho, the girl turns everyone else in the family against her.
I hope that plot description was generic enough. I don't want to give away anything too specific about Orphan because I knew very little about the plot when I popped in my DVD, and that made the ride all the more harrowing.
What I can safely say is that Orphan works because it's not simply a bloody freak show like so many horror movies. Oh sure, there are some gruesome moments; however, the emphasis is on the psychology, not the bloodletting. This is the rare fright flick that is actually grounded in some genuine human emotion. Kate is living under the scepter of her miscarriage. It's damaged her self-esteem, her marriage and, at some level, her very sanity. Bringing Esther into the home is supposed to be healing, yet the little girl seems to pick up on this vulnerability. For me, the eeriest scene in the movie is one in which Esther, having been prompted to "do something nice" for Kate, does something that is nice on the surface - except you know that she's very aware of the viciously cruel effect it has on her adoptive mother. Most of the horror in Orphan is built on the idea that Kate has lost a child, and every horrible thing Esther does in some way plays on that.
Vera Farmiga (The Departed) and Peter Sarsgaard both bring to Orphan what every good horror movie requires: a sense of emotional grounding. A story like this obviously is going to go to some extreme places, so it helps to have good actors playing realistic characters who we can care about/empathize with. Just as good is Isabelle Furhman, who is convincingly evil as Esther. I usually have a problem with "evil kid" movies. Few young actors are able to genuinely conjure up a sense of deep-seated nastiness. (This is, to a large degree, what sank the 2006 remake of The Omen.) Furhman projects an appropriately unsettling quality, without ever going too far over the top.
There is a plot twist in the last 20 minutes that may have some viewers calling foul. I think the twist is fair; pay close enough attention and you will see that the film has subtly set up some clues. That said, it's around this time that Orphan loses a little of its edge, sacrificing its carefully-developed fray-your-nerves psychology for a more traditional mano-a-mano ending. It feels - and a DVD deleted scene confirms - as though a more believable ending was re-shot to give audiences more "bang for the buck." Is it disappointing? Yeah. Is it fatal? No, because Farmiga and Furhman remain solid and hold it together.
Director Jaume Collet-Sera gives Orphan a stunning visual style, especially during a sequence involving a black light. And again, he wisely keeps the horror based in the reality of Kate's situation, so that we feel the impact of Esther's evil more fully. In that sense, Orphan is a very smart picture. A nasty little girl who knows how to exploit someone else's tragedy for her own personal gain is far more chilling than any monster, alien, or ghost could ever be.
( 1/2 out of four)
Orphan comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on Oct. 27. The film is presented in widescreen format. The sole DVD bonus feature is a short collection of deleted scenes, the most notable of which is an alternate ending. I actually like this ending better, as it feels more true to the spirit of the story. That said, it's kind of subtle and does not provide the sort of catharsis that horror fans often expect.
Picture and sound quality on the DVD are outstanding, which is important considering how integral they are to maintaining the film's atmosphere.
Orphan is rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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