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Child's Plague

Orphan (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Boxcutter in hand and evil-as-sin scowl on her face, a nine-year-old girl hovers over a sleeping boy only a few years her junior. First pressing the blade to the boy's throat, she then moves her weapon downward, stabbing dangerously close to his privates. As the now awake and understandably petrified kid trembles, the girl says with dead-seriousness, "I'll cut your hairless little dick off before you even know what it's for."

This scene comes shortly before the one-hour mark of the latest creepy-kid horror film, "Orphan;" but it's the defining moment – the instance where what seemed to be a conventional psychological thriller officially turns into a freak show. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose only other film of note is 2005's sub-par "House of Wax" remake, "Orphan" is a rather ballsy entry into a sub genre inhabited by the good (1976's "The Omen"), the bad (1993's "The Good Son"), and the underrated (2007's "Joshua"). Cast an unknown kid with an unsettling disposition, and then let him or her raise hell. "Orphan," however, ups the ante on all fronts. It's a messy film, plagued by inconsistencies that become loudly apparent once the much-publicized twist presents itself. If taken as nothing more than trashy camp hidden underneath a glossy mainstream sheen, though, "Orphan" is also quite entertaining, sue-me-for-liking-it fun.

Just wait until that see-it-to-believe-it scene twists its sleazy head.

Everything prior to that wild late-game reveal is nearly just as foul-minded. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard star respectively as Kate and John Coleman, a loving couple with a "Guitar Hero"-loving son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a barely-six-years-old deaf daughter Maxine (Aryana Engineer, armed with a smile that could melt ice). Kate, a former alcoholic, is grieving over a recent miscarriage, so the couple decides to adopt a little girl in hopes of reconciling the family's now-vacant third-kid slot. At the orphanage, John meets Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a polite and puppy-cute girl voluntarily separated from her peers and painting rather impressive works of art for a child her age. Esther hails from Russia and can carry an adult conversation without fault, sprinkling in disarming smiles for additional sales pitches. The Colemans are sold. Unfortunately for the family, she's more than qualified to be a top prospect in a "Children of the Corn" draft, first-round status. Esther then becomes closest to John and Maxine, leaving Kate paranoid and mentally deteriorating in the process.

As the constantly-on-edge protagonist Kate, Ms. Farmiga strongly leads the way for a cast that's collectively high quality – especially the child actors at work here, all carrying the deservedly R-rated drama with ease. Ms. Fuhrman, the newcomer assigned to play the make-or-break role of Esther, is a force. Esther's demeanor shifts from that of adorable sweetheart to calculated sociopath frequently, and Ms. Fuhrman scores across the board thanks in large part to the script's unexpected and successful partiality to dark humor. Over the course of a somewhat exhausting two hours, Esther points a loaded gun at her little sister's forehead, murders an adult with ferocious hammer strikes, and watches her adoptive parents have graphic sex in their kitchen, a sight that she later refers to as simply, "They fuck." "Orphan" goes so far over the top that there's nowhere else to land tonally than in a realm of sick comedy.

Mr. Collet-Serra shoots all of campy insanity as stone-faced as possible, giving his film a steadfast visual strength even when the story falls into a sewage of perversion ventilated by plot holes. If his "House of Wax" had anything going for it, it was a commendable urge to push things stylistically (see the film's best set piece, a mad dash to safety through a burning building full of wax floors). "Orphan" allows Mr. Collet-Serra to flex those muscles after four years in the filmmaking gym, and he wastes no time doing so, following the opening title card with a wonderfully disorienting dream sequence that'd leave Freddy Krueger clanging his claws in applause. Later in the film, an intense game of stalk-the-bully inside a playground's wooden castle uses camera close-ups and misdirected jump scares better than any slasher film in recent memory. Approaching "Orphan" with a self-assured eye, Mr. Collet-Serra keeps his product self-serious without appearing foolishly unaware.

To fully delve into the film's biggest problems, massive spoilers would be necessary, so let's just say that David Johnson's screenplay spends far too much time focusing on the wrong parent. Esther turns into a full-on daddy's girl, but the father-daughter relationship is left to secondhand accounts and a small handful of quick on-screen interactions. The underlying theme of a disintegrating family works mostly because the child characters are so well developed, helping each parental squabble and hospitalized kid hit an emotional nerve. Yet when the script's endgame trump card is finally revealed, we're left to sympathize with the one family member that's been humanized the least. It's a blazing misfire.

With a middle finger firmly flashed toward audience expectation, though, "Orphan" overcomes the narrative lapses. The laughs, whether intentional or not, come at a steady clip, while strong performances and sharp direction keep the absurdity within enjoyment's reach more than the script deserves. Defying lowered expectations, "Orphan" is, ultimately, a tough-to-deny overachiever. Like dealing with any uncontrollable rug rat, it's best to just let Esther have her way.

And about that twist: Halfway into the film, this critic thought, "Imagine if the big reveals turns out to be that she's ... They'd never be crazy enough to do that, though." Well, that ended up being spot-on. Take that for whatever it's worth.


Opens on July 24 in the United States and on Aug. 7 in Britain.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; written by David Leslie Johnson, based on a story by Alex Mace; director of photography, Jeff Cutter; edited by Tim Alverson; music by John Ottman; production designer, Tom Meyer; produced by Joel Silver, Susan Downey, Jennifer Davisson Killoran and Leonardo DiCaprio; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Vera Farmiga (Kate), Peter Sarsgaard (John), Isabelle Fuhrman (Esther), C C H Pounder (Sister Abigail), Jimmy Bennett (Daniel), Aryana Engineer (Max) and Margo Martindale (Dr. Browning).


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