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ORPHAN - THE PIT OF HORROR REVIEW -- [Posted 24 July 2009]


Deceptively packaged like the quintessential contemporary and hated PG-13 horror flick--although it's actually rated R--Jaume Collet-Sera's Orphan is one sick little puppy. I mean that in the best sense where horror films are concerned. While the first hour tends to drag in places and largely relies on musical stingers and inconsequential jump scares, once the film gets cooking, it serves up a smorgasbord of psychological terror.

Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Saarsgard) Coleman have lost a child a few years ago; in this case, her anticipated baby was stillborn. Kate's subsequent alcoholism has further strained the family, and a glimmer of hope to rebuild their lives is manifested in their resolve to adopt. At a nearby orphan home, they meet the Russian-accented Esther (Isabelle Furhman), an articulate and well-mannered nine-year-old immigrant who has lost her family in a tragic house fire. The beguiling Esther quickly wins their hearts, and once the paperwork is in place, they spirit her away to live as their daughter.

The Colemans have two other children. Twelve-year-old Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) is a sulky, Guitar Hero-addicted adolescent who entertains his buds with clandestine porn mags in his treehouse and who takes immediate dislike to his new sibling; seven-year-old Maxine (Aryana Engineer) is an adorably precious hearing-impaired tot who quickly comes to bond with her new older sister. Also onhand to welcome Esther into the fold is Grandma Barbara (Rosemary Dunsmore), John's meddlesome mom who incessantly badgers the vulnerable Kate.

Almost immediately, Esther begins her subtle transformation from wide-eyed child to cold and calculating manipulator. At a local playground, she causes "accidental" injury to a classmate who had made fun of her "Little Bo Peep" attire, bows and ribbons. A nun (the always-great CCH Pounder) from the orphanage comes calling to inform Kate that she has discovered some conflicting information in Esther's case history. It's not long before she meets with a grisly fate on an icy road. Did I mention there's a hammer involved? Well, there is. Worse, poor little Maxine is forced into unwilling collusion with Esther, who insinuates that any testimony she gives will implicate her as well. And in attempting to destroy some evidence of her misdeeds and rid the playing board of her increasingly-suspicious brother, Esther sets fire to Daniel's treehouse--after trapping the poor lad inside. One of the film's most disturbing images is Esther's cheerful demeanor as she leaves the terrified Daniel locked inside to burn to death. Although he manages to jump to his survival, his subsequent hospitalization offers her a chance at further murderous attempts on his life.

By now the movie has trotted out a tried and true cliche which still works--only the beleaguered Kate knows the truth, but no one else believes her, instead writing off her suspicions as paranoia and projection. That includes John, who still loves and trusts Esther. But that love and trust won't sustain for too much longer, because once Esther's agenda goes into overdrive, some facts about her backstory surface. And as for that plot twist that the advertisements proclaim "you won't see coming," let's just say that I sure as hell didn't see it coming. And it raised the hair on the back of my neck, not only with its Shyamalan-esque demand to re-think earlier tell-tale elements in the movie and how the twist suddenly made them fit together. The most disturbing aspect was that logically, albeit given a bit of suspension of disbelief, this scenario could actually happen.

The cast is exceptional. Farmiga is superb as the doting mom with excess emotional baggage who is faced with the unbearable revelation that her newly adopted daughter is not what she seems. Sarsgaard is effective as holding onto denial until it's practically too late. Bennett underplays perfectly, and his dropping of the F-bomb at the dinner table ("She's not my fucking sister!") is a tense moment. Then there is Furhman in the (basically) title role. The talented young actress manages to balance beguilement with unflinching menace, and with a convincing Russian accent as well. There is a future in the business for this young lady. But the real star of the show is young Aryana Engineer. Since her character cannot speak, she must essay her part through facial expression and subtle nuance; the sign language she exhibits is only mechanical, as it is usually accompanied by subtitles. In short, she is quite simply a marvel as young Max, and she steals the movie.

With so many well-intentioned but ultimately-lackluster attempts at psychological horror in today's cinematic climate, it's refreshing to get kicked in the balls again. That's just what Orphan manages to do, even if it takes a while before it truly gets its knee up. The knuckle-biting second act more than makes up for the somewhat pedestrian first. Genre enthusiasts cite each decade with a list of films exemplary of that era. When they're looking back on the 2000's, if Orphan is not on that list, I'll be surprised as hell--and pissed.

'ORPHAN' A Film by Jaume Collet-Sera
Starring VERA FARMIGA - PETER SAARSGARD - ISABELLE FUHRMAN - JIMMY BENNETT - ARYANA ENGINEER - ROSEMARY DUNSMORE - CCH POUNDER
Written by David Johnson and Alex Mace. Directed by Jaume Collett-Sera.

[DISCUSS ON OUR FORUMS] [Review By Petch Lucas]
PITOFHORROR.com

ORPHAN

YEAR: 2009

STUDIO: WARNER BROS.

COUNTRY USA

RUN TIME 123 mins (US)

CERT: USA, R

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