The horror device of a small, at-first-cute child turning out to be anything but has been absolutely done to death. Popularised by Japanese horror (or "J-Horror" as it's commonly known), with the likes of Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge, English speaking audiences are most used to it in the remakes of these original pieces of brilliant cinema.
What's refreshing to see, then, is a movie like Orphan, which takes that idea and puts a relatively fresh spin on it. This is achieved through the way in which the little girl, in this case a 9 year old Russian orphan, is slowly but surely unveiled as a lot worst than she looks. The film has an effective grasp on what makes a scary scene, and some fine performances. It's let done, however, when it gets to the last 20 minutes with the obligatory explanation/twist – why does that almost always happen with these kinds of movies?
The film follows a couple who have just recently lost a child through a still birth, and sometime later decide to adopt a child to join their family. They already have two children, a rebellious boy and an almost-deaf girl, and they decide to adopt a quiet, sensitive and extremely bright little girl, Esther, who was forced into adoption after her family was killed in a fire. At first everything seems to go well, but things start to go wrong when the mother (Vira Farmiga) starts to notice something isn't quite right with Esther.
Orphan is saved by director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax remake) having the knowledge of the difference between a genuinely effective jump scare and creepy atmosphere, and just loud noises that evoke a natural human reaction. There's a difference, and sadly not many horror movies these days realize this. Orphan thankfully does. There is many-a-moment, much like in the similarly titled Spanish film, The Orphanage, that the scene will build up with tension as if something is going to pop out, but just when you think something's going to happen nothing comes of it. This could be very frustrating if done wrong (overly done, for example) but it's employed pretty damn well here.
For gore to take place, there has to be some reason for it. Some logical purpose within the film's story for someone's blood to end up on the outside through some horrible means. This is something Orphan thankfully realizes, too. This is without a doubt a bloody and gory film at times (a jarring pre-credit dream sequence comes to mind right away), but not in the fashion that Hostel or some of the lesser Saw movies (i.e. the endless sequels) are. There's justification for the copious amounts of blood that spills. And I don't think it's a spoiler that the majority of this horrible carnage comes from our deceptively loveable orphan, Esther.
The fact that Esther is the "villain" of the picture isn't really a spoiler, since anyone who's seen half a dozen modern American horror movies should be able to guess going just by the premise, or even poster which depicts a suspect little girl with ponytails. No, the devil (so to speak) is in how the events within the film play out, which a lot of the time is structured as Esther causing various problems for her newly adoptive parents.
With the very precise application of often spine chilling atmosphere, and the surprisingly great performances from Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard and Isabelle Fuhrman (playing Esther), it's all the more disappointing to get to the film's climax to find one of the most ridiculous explanations to what's been going on for the past 90-plus minutes that I've seen in quite some time. Not to give too much away, but let's just say everything slots so conveniently into place with this one laughable and ludicrous explanation that it drags the film way down. In one swift move, the film went from a very, very good example of how this type of horror should be done, to simply an enjoyable chiller.
So even if the ending of the film weighs it down significantly, I still recommend Orphan to anyone who enjoys well done thrills and chills. It may employ one of the horror genre's most overused devices (the creepy little child), but it at least tries to do something unique and original with it. This is The Ring without the supernatural element, or The Omen without the religion.
The film is about 25 minutes too long, with the occasional lull in the narrative that could have been removed to remedy that. But overall Orphan can rest assured it's a more impressive example of mainstream horror than most that gets released nowadays.Powered by Sidelines