"Orphan" is a clever blend of old-fashioned, atmospheric horror and modern, graphic, violent horror. It begins with a nightmare that is so visceral and gory that it left one teenager at my screening whimpering that she wanted to go home. It then proceeds with more subtle ways of building dread.
Kate (Vera Farmiga) and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) are struggling. Kate is a recovering alcoholic whose drinking lost her a teaching position at Yale and nearly had far more deadly consequences. They are both grieving a stillbirth, and seriously considering adopting a child. Their living children, Max (Aryana Engineer) and Danny (Jimmy Bennett), are charming, but they want to do something with the love they felt for the one who didn't make it. They meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) on a trip to the local orphanage and are immediately taken by her quiet, mature manner and the detailed, creative paintings she does. They make the arrangements and adopt her.
At first, everything seems peachy, but it doesn't take long for Kate to get suspicious. Did Esther really push an unpleasant classmate off the playground equipment? What's up with the fit she threw at school when someone touched the strange ribbons she wears around her neck and wrists? Why won't she let them take her to the dentist? How is it that accidents always seem to happen around her? As Esther, Fuhrman does a brilliant job of walking the line, letting the audience see how she manipulates the emotions of those around
Among those taken in is John, and Sarsgaard does a good job of making him sympathetic in spite of his serious (and, in horror-movie-ville, unforgivable) flaws. "Orphan" is filled with familiar horror movie tropes the lone woman who sees bad things are on their way but is not believed by the other characters; the socio-pathic child out to wreak havoc; plenty of others but they're familiar because they work.
Not everyone will like "Orphan," and indeed, there are already Internet petitions decrying it for supposedly putting adoption in a bad light. The most effective horror movies, though, are the ones that take usually positive elements of life childbirth, marriage, adoption, love, homeowning and turn them into nightmares. "Orphan" is very effective, and whether you should see it or not depends on whether you find horror movies entertaining. This is a well-executed horrorfest, and those who can't handle graphic violence, children and animals in danger, and death should stay away. Horror movie aficionados looking for a rather new spin on familiar threads of story shouldn't miss it.
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Ealasaid A. Haas is a local film buff and freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit www.ealasaid.com.