Everything looks like it's going great for a while there. Kate starts teaching Esther how to play piano, her new dad spoils the kid rotten in their sprawling palatial home, and Max (Aryana Engineer) practically worships her adopted big sister. Okay, sure, her prickish brother Danny (Jimmy Bennett) can't really stomach the spotlight being aimed away from him, but...c'mon, they're kids. What are you gonna do? So anyway, turns out they're the most bestest family ever, they're all giddily happy, and as they ride off on ponies into the sunset, fade to black. Roll credits.
Oh! Wait. Forgot that this is a horror flick we're talking about here. So, Esther's a vengeful little sonuvabitch. Bully her at school...? Shattered leg on the playground and a half-inch away from a broken neck. Threaten to expose her past to her shiny new family...? Near-deaf-kid-roadkill and a clawhammer to the head over and over and over. She's a fucking nutjob, but Esther knows how to crank up the charm enough that no one thinks to accuse this murderous little moppet of anything. Max and Danny are scared too stiff to come clean -- they're next up on the hit parade anyway -- and everyone else thinks Kate's lost it when she can't shrug all of this off as a coincidence anymore. The body count keeps piling up more and more, Danny and Max barely slink away from certain death themselves a couple of times, and everything Kate does to protect her family makes her come off as that much more unhinged. That's okay: it just means more quality time for Daddy and Esther, right? Right?
After cringing at the pretty thoroughly terrible trailer that was making the rounds for a while there, I have to admit to kinda digging Orphan. This could've been a dumb, lazy, paint-by-numbers killer tyke flick, but it's shockingly well-made on pretty much every front. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has a keen visual eye as well as an obvious talent for bringing out the best from his cast. He's piled together a great stack of actors too. Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga obviously have a couple armfuls of awards and nominations between 'em, and I'm especially impressed with Aryana Engineer's turn as Max. It's astonishing to think that this
A lot of Orphan is pretty much what you'd expect: lazy jump scares, a frantic drive home when Kate realizes her family's about to be carved into bloody, fist-size chunks, the same thing that always, always, always happens when anyone's in a bathroom with a mirror...yeah. There's definitely plenty of stupid-people-doing-stupid-things to keep nudging the plot forward, like Danny's top-secret-secret-conversation with his deaf sister where he speaks outloud as he signs 'cause if he didn't, Esther wouldn't be able to hear him through the door. The movie absolutely grabs a lot of those standard issue setpieces, but it sometimes veers off in directions I wouldn't have expected too. There's one unlikeable shrew who practically has a sign stamped over her head reading "I'll be brutally murdered in six minutes" who never gets it. Orphan will seem as if it's setting up an obvious jump scare and then step away, even if it does indulge itself with another one shortly afterwards. It's creepier and more tense than I would've thought, and although it's hardly a splatterfest, some of the imagery is still pretty gruesome. Oh, and then there's that twist. Some of the promotional stuff early on smirked that you'll never guess Esther's secret, and...yeah. You won't. It's the most cacklingly outta left field, deliriously over-the-top, indescribably deranged twist imaginable, and that makes the movie what it is. I'm seriously jealous that I'm not creative (or depraved, or both) enough to ever be able to come up with something like that. The running theory on DVD Talk's forums is that Orphan's actually more fun if you stroll in knowing the twist in advance. I won't spoil it here, but...wow. Knowing definitely does make Orphan stand apart as more than just another knockoff of The Bad Seed, and even if you go in unspoiled the first time out, I'd bet you'd find the flick worth another whirl to see how it plays the next time through.
Orphan strikes a surprisingly great balance between dumb, trashy fun and something a little more artistic. The cinematography is striking and atmospheric, ekeing the most out of its stark, wintry backdrop, and it sports the glossy production values of pretty much everything that Dark Castle cranks out. Orphan is exceptionally well-cast and breathes quite a bit of life into its characters; there's enough color sketched into the margins for the Colemans to come across as people, not just cardboard cutouts waiting to be hacked apart. I especially love how wonderfully it incorporates a hearing-impaired child in the mix, amounting to so much more than a cheap Deaf Girl in Danger ploy for sympathy. Hell, even if it's not the most startlingly original horror flick once you get past the twist, at least it's not a remake or a sequel, and there's always something to be said for that. I had a blast with Orphan: sticky, sleazy, kinda artful, and...hey! Recommended.
Orphan looks pretty great in high-def, boasting a reasonably strong sense of detail and clarity without being saddled by that filtered look I've kinda come to expect out of Warner. A faintly gritty texture lurks in the background, and contrast is generally robust throughout, although it can be hit-or-miss in a few unusually dark shots. The muted palette complements the gloomy tone of the film extremely well, and its more colorful stretches -- a few gags with a blacklight along with Danny goofing around with a paintball gun -- pop that much more by comparison. This isn't the first disc I'd grab off the shelf to show off my overpriced home theater rig or anything, but it definitely hits the marks I'd expect from a newly-minted day-and-date release of a glossy horror flick.
This Blu-ray disc opens up the mattes slightly to an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Orphan sneaks in under the 25 gig mark all told, but its VC-1 encode, lossless audio, and extras look to be served up on a BD-50 anyway.
It's nothing that'll curl any toes, exactly, but Orphan is still packing a decent enough 16-bit, six-channel Dolby TrueHD track. The sound design isn't as hyperaggressive as I'd usually expect out of a thriller/horror flick/whatever. The rears don't flesh out the usual unsettling, eerie ambiance I kinda assumed they would this time out, and they really only kick in to sprinkle on some light directionality and to reinforce a handful of the more action-oriented scenes. The mix is definitely anchored up front, and viewers with just a straightahead stereo rig won't be missing out on much. The low-end's pretty healthy, though, from the thumping heartbeat bass in one key sequence to cracks of gunfire once the climax rolls around. The only real gripe I have on the technical end of things is that the dialogue sounds slightly noisy, but it's still balanced nicely in the mix and is consistently discernable throughout. The short version...? Low-key but certainly good enough.
Also piled on here are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs and subtitle streams in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Orphan serves up English SDH subs while it's at it too.
The movie opens with a few minutes of preaching-to-the-choir high-def plugs along with a minute-long montage to remind you that not all orphans are murderous little bastards. Orphan also includes a digital copy on a second disc for use on iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices, and for anyone keeping track at home, the disc comes packaged in a cardboard slipcase.
The Final Word
I'll admit it. I waltzed into Orphan expecting to hate it, but as it turns out...? Sharply directed, really well-acted, surprisingly creepy and tense, deftly juggling stock clichés with plenty of where-the-hell-did-that-come-from, belting out one of the most deliriously ridiculous, out-of-left field twists in the history of whatever: Orphan winds up being a ridiculous amount of fun. The lack of extras is a drag, sure, but still, Orphan definitely comes Recommended.
A Couple More...