This well-cast thriller takes the conventions of the “killer kid” sub-genre, throws them in a melting pot and hopes the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Intro by Phil
Horror cinema has a longstanding love affair with creepy, unnerving, fucked-up children. These supposed innocents make cuddly catalysts for all sorts of adult issues: The uncertainty of childbirth in Rosemary’s Baby and Absentia; the anxiety of adoption and motherhood in The Omen series and The Brood; the threat of straight-up murderous rampaging in The Bad Seed, Children of the Corn, The Ring and needless remakes of all three. Throw in a few quiet, telekinetic tykes, and you have a near-complete spectrum of the narrow uses for children in horror.
For better or worse, these films latch onto the doubt and distrust bubbling just beneath the surface of otherwise loving families, and then exploit them to frightening ends. But can a hell-spawn represent more than grown-up fears to become, you know, an engaging character? If simply cherry-picking the sub-genre makes a film memorable, then 2009’s Orphan is more promising than its vague title suggests. It’s a mish-mash of familial tension, mental illness, maternal inadequacy, possible child abuse, xenophobia, alcoholism and who knows what else, all involving a 9-year-old girl who could scare an audience shitless just reciting Dr. Seuss.
Set in an icy Connecticut town, Orphan begins when Kate (Vera Farmiga) and husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) lose their newborn in a feverish vision of childbirth gone wrong. Although the couple has two young children already – a deaf daughter, Max, and disinterested son, Daniel – the death leaves a sizable hole, and they decide to adopt from an orphanage run by the kindly yet naive Sister Abigail (is there any other kind of nun in horror?). Kate and John meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a lonesome girl from Russia with eerily precocious talents for painting, sign language and piano – she plays Tchaikovsky as well as Kate, a former Yale music professor. Esther immediately connects with Max and seems to be a cure-all for the couple’s problems, but Daniel is wary of his adopted sister’s foreign accent and clothing. Soon, the tragedy-prone family begins to unwind, and Kate investigates Esther’s shadowy origins to protect her family.
Orphan is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a music-video veteran best known for the 2005 film House of Wax, a relatively entertaining slasher overshadowed by its dubious reputation as a showcase for Paris Hilton’s “acting.” Despite that film’s shortcomings, Collet-Serra is an adept visualist, and Orphan is ripe for images of creepy kids doing creepy shit. A script by David Leslie Johnson, whose credits range from mangled blockbusters like Wrath of the Titans to episodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead, gives the director plenty of trashy, gruesome fodder.
Nearly more than direction or plot, though, casting is invaluable for child-based horror. Get it right, and a film can surpass expectations; get it wrong, and it dives straight into unintentional camp. Farmiga and Sarsgaard are old pros, and Fuhrman’s stunning debut led to a supporting role in The Hunger Games. All the pieces are in order for a transcendent bit of horror, yet Orphan scored a 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 45/100 on Metacritic. Could the Internet really be wrong? Let’s find out, and in the meantime, be wary of little girls wearing black ribbons.
Wanna watch? Orphan is available for 48-hour rental through Amazon Instant ($3.99) and…maybe Blockbuster? Does that still exist?
Phil: Let’s get something out of the way: I’ve had an inexplicable crush on Vera Farmiga since The Departed, when she and Leonardo DiCaprio have a passionate tryst set to a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”… Lordy. But unlike, oh, Jessica Alba, Farmiga is a respectable actress, and while she’s often relegated to supporting roles, she rarely disappoints. She’s more like Steve Buscemi, with an uncanny ability to turn ho-hum films into guilty pleasures simply by being on the screen.
I managed to miss Farmiga’s lead part in Orphan in 2009, so I was stoked to dig through it while warding off vague jealousy of Peter Sarsgaard as her husband. Yet my Farmiga fetish was often (and rightly) interrupted by the film’s true star, Fuhrman, who is equal parts charming, manipulative and downright frightening as Esther. Most horror films simply throw a couple children together, hand them sharp objects and expect the shock of kiddie killers to last 90 minutes. Fuhrman fights against lazy predecessors and audience expectations – we know she’s up to no good from the DVD cover – but she performs spectacularly, flitting between feigned innocence and genuine malevolence with little more than a look.
In this way, Orphan owes a lot to Henry James’ 1898 short story “The Turn of the Screw,” one of the first fictional works to suggest children aren’t always rosy-cheeked cherubs, but instead complicated, potentially violent people with the complex motivations of adults. Now, that comparison gets a bit tricky when (and if) we discuss Orphan’s final twist, but it’s high praise for a young actress, and although the filmmakers made several severe missteps, casting Fuhrman was not one of them. Chris, what’s your gut reaction to the film as a whole and Fuhrman in particular?
Chris: Phil, man, I got to say that I did very much enjoy this movie. I’m interested to hear where you think the film had shortcomings, but I’m stoked overall about this missed gem (we both missed it, right?). As for the lovely – and not – Fuhrman: Wow. What a performance! It reminds me a ton of a young Dakota Fanning, who came onto the Hollywood scene and blew the socks off us all in Man on Fire. Or, going back further, to one Henry Thomas in a small film titled E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Again, one of the more powerful child performances, and Fuhrman can now be solidly added to this list of amazing child breakthroughs. She definitely gave me the heebie-jeebies from the get-go. You?
For a child – and I know personally about this, as my roommates are both Russian – Fuhrman also did an amazing job of keeping her accent throughout the film. One thing that also got me about her was the makeup at the end. It didn’t take much to make her look the part, and we might discuss this later… or we might not, but she went from A to Z in one quick scene. Phil, did you notice this? What did you think of the relationship between Esther and Max? And at anytime feel free to talk about the shortcomings.
Phil: I had the same reaction to the make-up FX in the climax. From the jet-black dress to adult nail polish to thick eyeliner, Esther made a complete transformation, only to morph a final time thanks to nothing more noticeable than teeth and some rouge. It made Kate’s devastating revelation about her adopted daughter believable – an itsy-bitsy necessity most horror filmmakers overlook, and the difference between a memorable twist and a flop. This one’s going to stick with me.
Now, onto those missteps. Don’t get the wrong impression – I thoroughly enjoyed the film from start to finish, not only for the top-notch acting, but for the ways it twists and turns and folds in on itself. This type of plotting highlights the thriller/mystery questions of where Esther came from, who she is, why she acts the way she does, and how in the hell she can deceive so many people so subtly.
That said, Orphan never felt like a horror film. Sure, there were stabbings and frightening images and more than a few tense moments, but there was never any deep, lingering, gut-wrenching build-up of dread. Take a scene that shows the best and worst of what’s at play: Kate drops Daniel and Esther off at school, with Max buckled fastly in the back seat. Kate leaves her unattended to help Daniel pick up his dropped books – the backpack was apparently slashed open – and while doing so, Esther opens the driver door, releases the parking brake, and lets the car roll slowly backwards down a narrow, icy driveway toward a busy street. It’s hard to describe the incredible tension this builds in just a few seconds, but I stopped taking notes and simply stared while a dashboard-mounted camera showed other vehicles veering away from the runaway car, with Max on the verge of tears and unable to see anything but her horrified mother sprinting futilely toward her. I won’t give away how the scene ends, but needless to say, my heart was still racing five minutes later. It’s a testament to effective pacing, tension and character development – I truly cared what happened to Max, not solely because she’s a little kid and my protective instinct kicked in, but because I was invested in her character.
Before I get into her relationship with Esther, though, that fantastically shot scene has a major downside: It crippled the film as a whole. We know Esther was responsible, so when the mother is accused of being at fault, all I felt was frustration. Those explanatory portions of the script lean heavily on the Hitchcockian “innocent man wrongly accused” trope – good for suspense, not so much for reverberating horror. The same can be said of several other key scenes, with the possible exception of Sister Abigail’s untimely death. I blame some of this on Collet-Serra’s background in music videos, where quick cuts, resonating images and brooding tone only need to last for five minutes, not two hours. The film sort of slags more than I’d like, despite the actors trying their damndest to maintain an eerie atmosphere. They’re fighting against a director and script that pull them in two directions at once – not a completely bad thing, but I don’t think Collet-Serra has the chops to meld genres while sustaining a mood.
Whew… I went on way longer than I wanted and didn’t even get to all your questions, so I’ll let you kick off the analysis of Esther and Max’s relationship. Fair warning: This is a fucking doozy, and could involve spoilers.
Chris: I see where you are coming from. I recall being extremely frustrated knowing Esther was behind everything but having most everyone blame Kate. Even her husband blames her, and I’m not sad to say I was slightly happy with where he ends up.
As far as Max and Esther’s relationship goes, Esther plays on the knowledge that she can easily gain the trust of a child solely through her maturity and intelligence. She uses this to coerce Max into a relationship and keep her there with threats. The fact that Max was deaf was a huge love affair of mine. Like the house in When a Stranger Calls, her use of ASL (sign language) was a character in itself, one that we grew to love and were extremely invested in, just as much as Max. Having Esther sign right away helped her gain Max’s trust, and that was important from the start. The ASL was also a key point in the final minutes of the film, when Kate was on the greenhouse roof and could see Max hiding from Esther, then gave her directions through ASL to avoid harm. It was a nicely executed device for the entire film.
So, you are spot on about Orphan never feeling like a horror film. It was creepy – I even said that word aloud several times while viewing of the film – but it fell slightly short of the best genre examples in overall feel. The most horrific part of the movie was the final reveal, but I’m wondering: Should we give it away, or leave it to the readers to watch and find out?
Phil: I’ve been struggling with how much we should dig into those climactic scenes… I think we can tiptoe around the majority of major spoilers while still cutting to the core of why they cause goosebumps. As you mentioned earlier, Esther’s make-up was top-notch, transforming a slightly strange girl into a genuinely frightening little wraith. In relation to Max, that transformation makes their early relationship almost sickening – even though this film has plenty of kids in peril, watching Esther manipulate her new “sister” is by far one of the more disturbing elements. My stomach twists just thinking about the scene in which Max nearly gets hit by the nun’s car. The pacing was pitch-perfect, and for a scene placed in the middle of the film, it built all sorts of tension, nearly comparable to the runaway car scene I deconstructed earlier.
That said, Max was more than an easy plot device. I enjoyed all her characteristics – the ASL, her genuine innocence, precociousness and bravery – but also how she seemed remarkably self-sufficient. Like the lone female in a slasher, most kids in horror movies manage to survive simply because it’s taboo to kill a child. But Max belongs to a select group of kids – say, Newt in Aliens, or to some extent Danny in The Shining – who survive on their wits, ingenuity and pure determination, not simply because the plot requires it.
But back to the ending. If you wanted to paint a definitive image of the final 20 minutes without giving anything away, what would you describe? In other words, give me your best black-lit, fucked-up Esther drawing.
Chris: I like it, I like it. So here it goes: The image that really gets me is Esther in front of the mirror, right after John shuts down her weird, sort of sexual approach… She’s rubbing off the previously mentioned make-up to reveal eyes set a little deeper, and a slightly sagging chin-line with small creases running from the edge of her mouth. This little change, when taken under context, is the absolute most eerie part of the film. What do you think?
Phil: That’s the one I had in mind, and it only makes the remainder of the film unbearably creepy. But, as you briefly mention, it only barely overshadows the scene immediately before between Esther and John. The sudden personality change she undergoes is shocking and disturbing, particularly when mixed with his boozy, dizzy attempts to ward her off. It’s one of those scenes you almost want to fast forward through – even if you’ve never seen it before – and not because it’s dull or uninteresting.
Speaking of, the entire film was rarely as draggy or convoluted as I expected. Sure, it struggles to maintain a consistent tone, and the final reveal hinges on an enormous plot contrivance. But if you accept it for what it is – a fictional film – I can forgive certain plot contrivances, especially when the characters are more than bland ciphers. Orphan sticks to its own logic, and that’s all I really ask. I tend to shy away from films starring young kids, but with a stunning performance by Fuhrman, several heart-pounding scenes, a plot that remains relatively engaging and, of course, the deliciousness of Vera Farmiga, I thoroughly enjoyed Orphan. I don’t know if I’m smitten with it, but the film grabbed my attention and held it, with more than enough disturbing energy to overcome some unavoidable cheese. Chris, what’s your final verdict?
Chris: Phil, you pretty much summed that shit up. It was good in all the right places, and where it was bad (difficult might be the better word) it at least stuck to its world and didn’t stray, like so many fictitious movies gone bad (take Creature). Orphan was full of memorable scenes involving many things we love as children, like playgrounds, treehouses, frozen ponds, nuns… maybe not nuns, but you get the picture. It played on the children as main characters, and in the final moments, it threw a curveball that’s as strong as Jigsaw standing up after lying “dead” in a puddle of coagulating blood for an entire film. I say that this film is a standout 3, and needs to be bought and watched right away – preferably on Blu-ray, because the soundtrack was almost as amazing as Sunshine. Phil, what do you say?
Phil: I nearly forgot about the soundtrack – it was pretty damn good, even when interrupted by the abrasive clanging of jump-scares. I’m going with a solid 2, just barely below a 3.
Chris: 3 – Buy and watch immediately, Blu-ray if you got it.
Phil: 2 – Damn likeable, plus Vera Farmiga.