Any horror film that features a child as an antagonist has high hurdles to leap. First (and foremost) it has to have a scary child in the main role. Keep in mind The Omen didn’t even have a good scary kid actor. Next, that scary kid actor, assuming you found a good one, has to play both sides of the fence. He/she has to be way way likable in the beginning to justify the adults trusting and liking him/her and then, when the bad stuff comes, has to be just as unlikeable. That’s not even an easy trick for great adult actors. And finally, the audience has to buy that this great scary kid actor who is playing both sides of the fence is actually capable of being this cunning and evil.
Orphan manages to clear all of these, with varying degrees of success. First, the makers found a very good kid actor in Immanuelle Fuhrman, here playing Esther, the oddball orphan at the local orphanage. Esther immediately seems not at all like a child when John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) first come to the orphanage to meet her. While the other kids are running around, bouncing off the walls and screaming at the top of their lungs, Esther is off by herself, painting. Talking to her she’s polite and intelligent beyond what a child her age should be, as it’s almost like talking to an adult. And in many ways, that’s what parents want – a cute little kid who is smart enough to understand the adult world. An adorable child who doesn’t throw a tantrum over whether or not they can have a cookie before bed. A mature young person.
Mostly though, Kate needs to fill the hole left by the death of her daughter at birth. Kate fell into depression and alcoholism shortly after the botched pregnancy and she’s just coming out of the haze. This is a big step. And she immediately takes to Esther. And why not? This kid is amazing!
Upon arriving home, Esther starts playing both sides of the fence. Since her new sister, Max, is deaf, Esther learns sign language. She is polite and considerate always. Fuhrman plays all of this without a glint of evil in her eye. Even the first scary thing she does – showing up in Max’s room during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night – turns out to be not so scary, as she leads the little girl to her parents room, where they spend the rest of the night in safety. This is the girl who is going to cause all the mayhem later? It seems doubtful.
As for the last hurdle of scary kid actors, the believability of this evil kid being so cunning and evil, Orphan has a special trick up its sleeve that sends it flying over this particular hurdle, even if it is kind of a howler. You just can’t take it as seriously as Kate’s lost child and alcoholism, which an earnest and downbeat mood early on. The big twist sets these things off balance. And most likely this twist was supposed to be much more terrifying but is hiding in plain sight the whole time, not unlike the twist in The Sixth Sense. But whereas that twist sent you back through the whole movie, re-evaluating every scene, this twist gets a couple of healthy gut laughs, maybe an “Oooooooo-kay” from the audience and then you’re into the final showdown.
If you’re the kind of person who watches whatever is left of The Bad Seed when you find it on TV, this movie will probably bring you a lot of happiness. There’s nothing much that it has to say, which is unfortunate considering some of the very serious subject matter. This isn’t a lesson on adoption gone wrong, miscarriage, or alcoholism. It’s mostly a movie built around a trick, with a solid cast and crew doing the building. Also, for parents or parents-to-be – especially moms – who love nothing more than torturing themselves emotionally, the opening scene is a doozy. For all others, you might want to steer clear.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and the transfer is a good one, especially considering the graininess of the film itself. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French, and Spanish and is well engineered for this type of movie.
Deleted Scenes/Alternative Ending – A few deleted scenes from the film, including an alternate ending that would’ve ended the movie on a much spookier note than the ending of the theatrical release. (4:03)
Orphan is a well-made thriller with an ending that doesn’t quite fit with the overall tone. Still, it’s a fun trip if you’re into the scary kid subgenre.