By Pauline Adamek
Perhaps you remember that stagy 1950’s classic film “The Bad Seed” or you saw “The Good Son” back in 1993? Maybe those blond moppets from “Village of the Damned” and demonic Damien from “The Omen” gave you nightmares? You reckon you’ve got this evil-kid storyline sussed? Think again. “The Orphan” is an effective psychological thriller that will turn your blood to ice water.
Kate (Vera Farmiga) and Jon (Peter Sarsgaard) are trying to repair a rocky marriage. Jon cheated a while back and Kate took to drinking, which meant she was incapacitated when their little girl Max (Aryana Engineer) nearly drowned in a frozen pond. Kate swore off alcohol but then suffered a stillbirth, and remains haunted by horrifically gory nightmares – one of which opens the movie and sets the gruesome tone of terror.
Somewhat questionably, the pair decides to adopt an orphan named Esther to give their little daughter Max (who is deaf) the sister she was hoping for. Their oldest son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) isn’t so keen on the plan, especially when he is embarrassed by Esther’s eccentricities at school. But what happens to your family when you adopt a charming little girl who turns out to be a psychotic killer?
At first Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) enchants them with her sweet demeanor, her impeccable manners, and astounding artistic abilities. But this evil poppet has a destructive agenda and embarks upon an increasingly violent and murderous rampage. A master manipulator, she first wins over Max, then implicates her new siblings in some malevolent acts while terrifying them into keeping silent. She cunningly drives a wedge between Kate and Jon until Kate finds no one will believe her when she wakes up to the true evil of Esther.
Apparently there was a great deal of disturbing backstory about Esther’s past in the screenplay that didn’t make it into the final movie. It’s too bad because it would have presented a deeper motivation and purpose to her killing sprees. Perhaps a prequel might be on the cards?
Nevertheless Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax”) does a first-rate job of building the intense terror. Only mildly predictable – therefore largely unpredictable – he really plays with the horror conventions, such as repeatedly setting up “Boo!” moments that don’t eventuate, and then tricking you when they do. There are also a handful of laughable moments for tension relief before the next horrific onslaught. One magnificent visual effect is the revelation of the truly disturbing paintings hidden beneath Esther’s works of art.
Collet-Serra also elicits superb performances from his cast, especially from the adorable and scene-stealing Aryana Engineer in her screen debut as little Max, while 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman gives a terrifying performance as the pint-sized villain.
Way more evil than “The Good Son” or “The Unborn,” “The Orphan” is chilling, plausible, and guaranteed to mess with your mind.
Stars: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, Aryana Engineer, Jimmy Bennett
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Official Site: http://orphan-movie.warnerbros.com/
[Pauline Adamek is a Hollywood-based film, theatre and food critic who files for “FilmInk Australia,” the “LA Daily News,” “Sun Community Newspapers” as well as various websites under the “nom du net” Max Million.]
Photos courtesy Warner Bros.