What makes a good horror movie? The answer is different for everyone: some like their nerves tingled by chilling suspense, some like the rollercoaster thrill of the cheap shot jump scare and some simply like to be grossed out by hyper gore. Orphan has all of these things and yet it will not go down as one of the greats of the genre.

Orphan reworks the established child from hell theme well, with Isabelle’s Fuhrman’s creepy orphan kid, Esther, inveigling her way into the Coleman family that consists of loving husband and wife team, John and Kate (Sarsgaard and Farmiga), and their two nippers, Daniel and the deaf Max (Bennett and Engineer). But Esther is not the sweet, charming and talented child she appeared to be at the orphanage, and soon displays some deep character flaws, from use of bad language to a talent for manipulating those around her. It’s clear she has a hidden agenda and, as Kate soon learns, will stop at nothing to break up this seemingly happy family unit. Despite all the evidence that Esther is one scary little kid (with tragedies and bodies piling up around her), no-one believes Kate that Esther’s really an agent of chaos, particularly her husband and therapist, until it’s too late.

On paper it all sounds very good, and owes more than a nod to The Omen, and it’s true that the first third of Orphan is excellent. It starts with a seriously gruesome birth sequence (pregnant women don’t watch!) and subtly establishes both that there are some underlying problems in the Coleman family, despite the surface gloss, and that there’s something wrong with Esther (as the film’s great tagline highlights). The second third meanders along at paint drying on wall watching pace, occasionally dishing up some surprises and laughs along the way, but takes too long to get to where it’s going and the normally very reliable Sarsgaard seems to give up the will to act. The final third certainly inserts a much-needed jolt of adrenalin and tension as the film reaches its bloody climax, but it’s also when you won’t believe what your synapses are telling you.

At the start of the press screening, a representative from the film’s distributor requested that the collected critics don’t reveal the twist in the tale in their reviews, presumably done so that audiences will be surprised when it comes. Given the reaction by the assorted journos, the improbable twist is more likely to elicit an impromptu outbreak of belly laughs so for that reason alone we’ll spare you the details. Seriously, you won’t laugh so much in ages.

Despite this, Orphan is much better than the similarly themed The Unborn and director Jaume Collet-Serra’s previous horror, House Of Wax, and includes some genuinely scary sequences. Farmiga is good as the distressed mother, Engineer is cute as a button as the little sister and Fuhrman is hauntingly sinister throughout.
SECOND OPINION | Craig McPherson ***
Every once in a while a film seems destined to slip under the radar either by poor promotion or a trailer that makes the viewer go “meh”. Orphan is one of those flicks that, while benefiting from a decent studio push, simply didn’t impart any compelling reason to check it out based on the trailer, which is too bad because this is actually one tight little thriller. Telling a surprisingly layered story that strays into uncomfortable territory given how it deals with children in peril, the shiniest gem in this entertaining nugget is that of Isabelle Fuhrman, upon whose performance the movie succeeds or fails. While acting is uniformly top notch throughout, Fuhrman spectacularly establishes herself as one of the most remarkable young talents currently working in cinema, and that’s a statement not to be taken lightly.

This 12-year-old, who had only one prior film credit on her resume, simply blazes her way across the screen in a performance that ranges from sweet to seductive to psychotic. This is her movie and she makes the most of it, and if she doesn’t mature into one of Hollywood’s premier stars, I’ll be most surprised. Orphan won’t win any awards (despite Fuhrman’s impressive performance) and might well get passed over by many based on the trailer, all of which is too bad because this is one stray that movie audiences would do well to adopt.

Official Site
Orphan at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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