Using children as antagonists has been a staple of horror films for quite some time and rightfully so. By themselves, children are filled with curiosity and they don’t understand boundaries. They behave extremely, with no regard for moderation. Children are naturally cruel. Ironically, all of society’s rules favor children. They cannot be mentally, verbally or physically assaulted by adults lest other adults intervene. Worse yet, when something truly heinous happens, children are above suspicion by virtue of being a child, making children perfect killers. Orphan taps into all of these unspoken fears to great effect and turns out a competent horror film, but what elevates the movie beyond its genre is how accurately it portrays the psychology of relationships.
In Orphan John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) Coleman are a typical family unit with 2.5 children. During the opening sequence the film reveals the couple’s tragic past involving the miscarriage of their third child in a very vivid and bloody – and almost comical – opening sequence. Years after that unfortunate incident, Kate is a recovering alcoholic and her marriage to John is somewhat sexless. They decide to make a change and adopt an orphan. In this case, it happens to be Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman): an aloof and precocious nine-year-old with a cute Russian accent. As soon as Esther is welcomed into the Coleman’s home, she begins exerting control over the Coleman’s other children, Daniel and Max, and starts building an abrasive relationship with Kate. When strange coincidences begin to pop up only Kate suspects something is wrong with Esther. As violence gets thrown into the mix, it’s up to Kate to stop her.
As far as horror films go, Orphan is very slow-paced. The meat of the scares doesn’t really begin until halfway through the second act. The film manufactures cheap fear early on by interjecting stingers – loud sounds – as mundane things run across the screen. Without those reminders, it would be easy for viewers to think they were watching a family drama since the first half of the film is meant for getting to know the Coleman family and its dynamics in a natural, unforced manner. While some viewers may be put off by this choice, most will not be since the acting and the writing are so wonderful to experience.
John and Kate’s relationship is one of the more realistically portrayed relationships in film. They don’t always share each other’s concerns. They’re deeply suspicious of each other. They sometimes don’t want to have sex at the same time and when they do it isn’t graceful. In short, audiences will see themselves onscreen. As such, John and Kate are perfect surrogates for the audience, allowing the fear to really penetrate on a disquieting level. What makes Esther so scary is her uncanny ability to see how fragile trust is and how easy it is to manipulate people with it and John and Kate are excellent victims.
The acting is top notch all around. Amazingly, everyone turns in a strong performance. Even the Coleman’s daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), who has no lines is a joy to watch. Of course the two actors that carry the film are Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrman. Farmiga hits the pitch perfect emotion in every scene, whether she’s lost in inconsolable sorrow or enraged as she protects her children. Audiences will instinctively feel her pain and cheer her on appropriately. On the other end, Fuhrman will strike awe with her preternatural acting. Her deadpan stares and haunting voice are downright frightening.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra handles the gore and horror with restraint, while cinematically scoffing at the common horror movie clichés, like blocking the audience’s view with an open refrigerator door only to reveal nothing where audiences would normally expect something horrible when the door closes. Collet-Serra demonstrates his creativity by filming a playground gymnasium with horror movie flare, taking close-up shots of swinging chains and using a number of camera techniques to convey claustrophobia in tight corridors. Unfortunately, he does cheat a little by using rushing POV shots from the point of view of nothing to generate cheap scares, but overall the horror is genuine throughout the film.
There are only two disappointments of note in Orphan. First, the reveal explaining what’s wrong with Esther feels a bit rushed and made up on the spot. On the other hand, there probably isn’t a better way to handle that moment, so it’s a minor complaint. Secondly, logic breaks down a little bit when nine-year-old Esther is able to physically best an adult male. Granted, the victim was drunk, but not so drunk he couldn’t fight back. All things considered, however, these two criticisms shouldn’t stop anyone from watching this excellently put together film.