A brilliant, cheeseball horror thriller that takes some of the concepts of the flawed '70s thriller "The Godsend" and amps up the tension by a thousand times. Director Jaume Collet-Serra more than redeemed himself for the clunker that was "House of Wax" with the best killer kid movie in years.
"Orphan" opens with a nightmare sequence depicting an ultra-bloody miscarriage, setting the mood for a movie that is pretty much going to play as a family drama for its first half. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard play a successful married couple with two kids who have gone through some ups and downs. In addition to the big miscarriage, the mother successfully fought an alcoholism battle. The dad had an affair years earlier. And their youngest daughter (about 7 or so) is deaf, while their 10-year-old-ish son has a penchant for videogames and Playboy.
To help heel the emotional wounds of mom's miscarriage, the couple decide to adopt. Visiting a nearby orphanage, their encouraged by the lead nun (CCH Pounder) to adopt recent arrival Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 10-year-old with talents for art and charming adults. Her last adoptive family tragically died in a fire. Ignoring that the girl has a sinister Russian accent and always insists on wearing ribbons around her neck and wrists, they adopt her anyway.
Fuhrman's performance as the sinister Esther is nothing short of amazing and carries the film. Needless to say, all hell starts breaking loose after the orphan's arrival. She doesn't bond well with their older son, but she does make a connection with their deaf, younger daughter. Her sinisterness becomes more
apparent when she smashes a dying bird with a rock and nonchalantly tells her new brother and sister: "It's all right. It's in heaven now."
Esther turns out to be a master manipulator, pitting members of the family against each other and showing up unannounced whenever mom and dad are about to get hot and heavy with one another. Beyond just being irritating, she's also evil -- nearly killing another girl at the playground. But things start to get really out of hand when the chief nun shows up to warn the parents that something may actually be wrong with Esther -- based on some research they've done on the girl. Bad things happen wherever she goes -- from injuries to other children to her last parents' deaths.
With excellent acting all around, believable and sympathetic characters, and stellar direction by Collet-Serra, "Orphan" successfully morphs from a well done, serious family drama to cheeseball horror mystery without distracting the audience. It's serious yet ridiculous at the same time. Collet-Serra ratchets up the tension slowly until finally it climaxes with all out war between mother and adopted daughter. It's hard to believe he's the same guy that helmed the below-average "House of Wax."
Daring and fresh, "Orphan" is easily one of the best horror movies of 2009. Its box office was greatly helped by protests from orphans' rights groups who worried it would prevent some families from adopting.