Orphan uses pure horror film craftsmanship to make a series of hoary old cliches almost unbearably suspenseful. This is the most committed, downright unpleasant child-from-hell movie imaginable. It makes The Good Son play like Polyanna. Isabelle Fuhrman’s Esther would kick Macauley Culkin’s ass.
For a while, though, Orphan plays like it’s not terribly interested in being a horror movie. After a compellingly off-kilter opening dream sequence we’re introduced to Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard), a loving couple on the verge of adopting a grown child from an orphanage. Kate is still recovering from a tragic miscarriage, and it’s clear that the adoption is meant to fill a hole in her life. She says she wants to give the love she felt for the baby that didn’t make it to someone who really needs it, but we sense something else — perhaps that her biological children, one of whom is practically deaf and the other withdrawn and unaffectionate, aren’t giving her the parenting experience she was hoping for.
Esther promises to change all that. Precocious and expressive, with big eyes and a wide smile, she’s a talented artist and wants to learn the piano. She gives big hugs and laughs easily. Her Russian immigrant parents were killed in a fire, and she seems to have some lingering paranoia. She insists on locking the door to the bathroom. She wears ribbons around her neck and wrists, and just try to take them off. Maybe Kate can help her.
As you might imagine, things quickly go south. An accident befalls a school bully. Esther is caught banging out some badass Tchaikovsky after Kate spent hours with her on “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” A nun from the orphanage comes to visit and doesn’t make it back. Kate senses immediately that something is wrong, and lurches to protect her biological children. But John is having none of it. Esther is nine years old, he says, and you’re an alcoholic. Indeed, a few years ago, a tragic accident involving a frozen pond and a plastered Kate almost claimed their daughter and their marriage.
A running time of 123 minutes seems offensively excessive for a horror film, but Orphan manages to justify it. Like most everything else in the movie, Kate and John Coleman turn out to be variations on genre staples — she the no-one-believes-me hero who is threatened with institutionalization for seeing what’s really there; he the “understanding husband” who’s really the gullible enabler — but Orphan‘s characterization of them is so affectionate, and Farmiga and Sarsgaard’s performances so lovingly nuanced, that we engage with them anyway. The film spends a lot of time on set-up, with enough attention to detail to remain compelling until the horrorshow really gets going in the second hour. The family at the center of Orphan may be assembled from familiar elements, but it’s not generic: they are distinct individuals with a rich history.
The last hour is a series of climaxes so intense that the cumulative effect is a little bit draining. This is not a movie I have any desire to see again. Yet one must tip the hat to director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax), who has crafted a relentless, genuinely unsettling thriller. Part of the key is that Orphan‘s horror elements go beyond simple jump scares and sudden outbursts of violence. It sets up complex scenarios and escalates them in ingenious ways. Most diabolically, the film implicates Kate and John’s innocent biological offspring, who play key roles in the third act. They do not have a pleasant time. If you are offended by genre films that put kids in harm’s way, Orphan is not for you — but you’re missing out.
I cannot abide the film’s last ten minutes, which are hysterical, ridiculous, and — for the first time — visually inept. The schlock-o-meter skyrockets just prior to the end credits, and Orphan deflates considerably. Still, until the very end, this is a remarkably skillful horror movie. It runs 123 minutes and feels like 90.