ORPHAN **** USA 2009 Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra. 123 mins
Isabelle Fuhrman is terrific as Esther, one of cinema’s memorable Bad Seeds: a nine year old, Russian-born girl who charms Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard at CCH Pounder’s orphanage as they grieve the recent death of what would have been their third child. This intelligent, well-spoken orphan has her demons, however: bullied by bitchy classmates for her “Little Bo Peep” everyday clothes, she threatens or harms anyone threatening her new life. Sarsgaard is blinded by her charm while his wife slips into paranoia overdrive, determined to figure out her dark secrets.
For about 90 minutes, this overlong but effective Dark Castle horror picture – from the director of the equally overlong but inventively gruesome HOUSE OF WAX remake – appears to be another modern riff on the camp, influential mid-1950s play / film THE BAD SEED, while fulfilling the promise of an ad campaign suggesting a distaff OMEN minus the Biblical stuff. Fuhrman is well cast as a warped pre-pubescent prone to bludgeoning grownups with hammers, pointing guns in the face of her deaf kid sister and threatening to cut off one young boy’s “hairless prick”. The nasty edge – which would have proved controversial in the 90s when films like the milder THE GOOD SON were censored – adds to the fun.
A melodramatic denouement changes everything, bringing on a loopy twist involving the phrase “rare hormonal imbalance” and the revelation turns the movie into a retro post-FATAL ATTRACTION home-wrecker slasher flick pitting a Nice Family against a manipulative, hostile invader. Overall, it’s an odd but compelling balance of pure bad taste and dramatic sincerity: the underplaying Sarsgaard and outstanding Farmiga (who had a similar role in the lower-key JOSHUA) bring total commitment and conviction to their roles, even when the plot enters the “batshit mad” stage.
If the final act involves a huge audience leap of faith, and Collet-Serra isn’t above cheap bathroom-mirror jump scares, it’s still genuinely disquieting at times, particularly during a climactic sequence in which young Esther glams up and comes on to a marvellously uncomfortable Sarsgaard. All this plus a great, gross-out still-birth nightmare sequence and potent suspense scenes with burning tree houses, slippery slides, icy lakes (a la OMEN II) and life support machines.
Review by Steven West
ORPHAN & ORPHAN: FIRST KILL are also available in a Blu-ray box-set