Jaume Collet-Serra | 2009 | 123 mins | USA / Canada
Orphan is one of those oddities that’s hard to recommend without spoiling. On the surface, it's 50% failed thriller and 50% failed horror, but deep down, there is a lot of entertainment value in its stupendously stupid (but funny) premise.
The film is about a couple, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Fermiga and an oddly fey Peter Sarsgaard), who have recently suffered the stillbirth of what was to be their third child. By way of dealing with their tremendous grief, they’ve decided to give the love they had for their child to someone who “really needs it”. One excursion to a school for orphaned girls later, they bring home Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine year old Russian girl with impeccable manners, a talent for painting and a penchant for wearing ribbons around her neck and wrists.
Esther seems wonderful at first, but soon mom starts feeling uneasy around the preternaturally genteel child. As Esther begins to show her manipulative, sinister colours, Kate must try to convince John that something is terribly wrong before it’s too late.
Kate's an ex-alcoholic, and some terrible accident involving the couple's younger, deaf daughter is hinted at but never fully explained. This subtle subplot is one of the things that makes the first half of Orphan a successful slow-burn thriller. Unfortunately, the third act seems to be tacked on from a completely different film. Basically, the ending of Orphan is the most crazy shit since Sleepaway Camp, but don't worry, no spoilers here. The shocker reveal is much more preposterous and thoroughly implausible.
Orphan is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster of a film. Had the ending been preceded by much goofier horror fare, or had the beginning been given a more dignified finale, it might have been great. Instead, the odd patchwork becomes laughable. And really, I'm not scoffing at the entertainment value of unintentionally funny films!
One of the best things about Orphan is the gorgeous architecture (a prerequisite for any film about a family being terrorized at home, it seems). The wood-and-glass structure set against the stark wintry forest is not just idyllic - it's a perfect backdrop for terror. Sarsgaard plays an architect, and the design details in this film (like the Eames rocking chair in the couple’s living room) did not go unnoticed by me.
Also: I wasn't sure why the film company logos played before the opening credits were tinged with weird day-glo hues until later in the film when it became obvious that Orphan was going to deliver one of the creepiest and funniest black light scenes in recent horror history. Thumbs up for that.