While killing kids remains a solid cinematic taboo (only Troma's terrific Beware: Children at Play can get away with a maximum amount of wee one slaughter), killer children get a lot of motion picture play. From Patty McCormick's seminal 'Bad Seed' to The Omen, The Child, Village of the Damned, Pet Semetary, Child of Rage, The Good Son, and Joshua, under-aged hellspawn with an adult oriented need to butcher remain a popular part of the fright film format. The notion of innocence perverted, youth reoriented toward mayhem and destruction taps into primal fears both biological and personal. No one wants to give birth to a bedeviled baby like the one in It's Alive. At the same time, a psychotic ankle biter is a bit hard to swallow, especially when you consider the adult to pee wee weight and motor skills ratio. Still, Hollywood keeps turning out the attempts, the latest being the well received thriller Orphan. Preying on both parentage and the problem of adopting Eastern European oddballs, the premise promises lots of awkward adjustments and arterial spray. Sadly, the movie is a bit lax in both departments.
John and Kate have been through a lot recently. She's battled the bottle and lost on more than one occasion. In fact, a specific bender lead to her deaf daughter's near drowning. Luckly, hubby was there to save the day (if not the resulting marital distrust). After a third pregnancy leads to a stillbirth, the couple decides to adopt. While they love the handicapped Max and precocious Daniel, they want to take the attention they would have given to the new baby and give it to someone who needs it. Enter Esther, an unusual orphan child with a slightly Slavic accent and several obvious eccentricities. Still, the Coleman's think she's peachy and before long the nine-year-old is shacked up in the family's formidable home. Initially Esther has a hard time fitting in - classmates mock her and Daniel thinks she's odd. But when Kate starts to suspect that several nasty "accidents" can be linked to her new daughter, she goes off the deep end. Soon, John is not sure if his wife is back on the sauce, if his kids are merely uncomfortable around Esther...or if this seemingly sweet child is not all that she seems (hint: it's the latter, but a LONG shot).
Let's just all this piffle The Bland Seed and get it over with, shall we? Oh, don't be mistaken - young actress Isabelle Furhman is about as wicked as one can get at three foot six, and when she finally finds her inner Voorhees during the film's last act, she slices and dices with the best of them. But getting to the payoff is part of the problem here. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who offered a similar backloaded strategy to his hackneyed House of Wax remake, just doesn't understand pacing. Instead, he takes forever establishing the Coleman clan, giving Vera Farmiga's long suffering recovering alcoholic Kate another hour of so of hand wringing before bringing on the blood. In addition, David Leslie Johnson's dawdling script sees Peter Sarsgaard play the most understanding and/or forgiving individual since a man named Jesus started collecting disciples. His wife claims that something is wrong with Esther. He brushes it off as nonsense (or worse - a return to liquor fueled fantasies). Doctors, nuns, and others warn him of a potential problem with his new adopted daughter. He declares "poppycock" and pats her on the head, reinforcing her already inappropriate desires. Heck, even when Esther dolls herself like a five dollar hooker, it's good old dad who takes the blame for giving her the wrong impression. Huh?
Even worse, Esther is a little obvious in her evil efforts. Snobby girl gets her goat in school? She pushes her off a playground slide in full view of everyone. Evidence of a recent bludgeoning needs to be disposed of? Why drop it off in a local lake (or as the deleted scenes indicate, frame a local homeless man) when you can set an entire treehouse on fire - again, in full view of everyone and with a member of the Coleman clan in it. Want to prove that Kate is an abusive mom who's using booze as a means to ease her lingering post-partum depression? Simply place your arm in a tool bench vice and twist like a mofo. Of course, these scenes are shocking, meant to disarm an audience that is buying into every scary movie ruse this movie is utilizing. But they aren't scary, or unsettling. Instead, they play as perfunctory, just like the constant use of the false alarm (character opens a mirrored medicine cabinet door, closes it, and...nothing's there - over and over again) and the obvious "boo!". Again, once our villain gets her secret revealed and goes on a glorified killing spree, we start to celebrate what Orphan could have been. But all the malingering and languishing about at the beginning does not generate suspense. All it manages to manufacture is tedium.
Besides, this movie violates one of Roger Ebert's main tenets for an unsuccessful narrative: if a single question could be asked and answered, resolving a main plotpoint - in this case, a mandatory medical examination by a state-run child protective services agency prior to approving the Coleman's paperwork - the entire premise falls apart. Orphan takes it all a step further - everyone involved in Esther's new life has to be either ignorant, blind, stupid, retarded, clueless, ambivalent, and otherwise disconnected from the rest of reality before this storyline will actually work. What parent NEVER sees their child undress, allows them to skip numerous dental appointments, and basically live by themselves in a massive mansion-like home? What dense dodo doesn't walk into her room at night, see the telltale blacklight and not uncover what the '60s/'70s poster prop will reveal? Who doesn't question the ribbon accessories, the apparent anti-social behavior, and the biological kids' sudden sullen and sheepish attitude? Unless you assume your children are smoking crack, you find a way to get the truth out of them. You're parents, after all, not bystanders in a silly horror movie...oh, that's right. This John and Kate are actually the latter. As a matter of principle, evil kids often deliver a Grand Canyon of guilty pleasures. Orphan can't even provide a valley of vileness until it's far too late for anyone to care.
Visually, Orphan looks awfully good. The DVD transfer takes Collet-Serra's serious winter wasteland compositions and adds a layer of polish that makes the image come alive. While the Blu-ray does look significantly better (you can almost count the snowflakes during certain scenes), the standard digital picture is pretty great. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation offers some artistic flourishes and atmosphere to spare.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mix is high on ambience and low of flaws. The back speakers get used a great deal, especially during the exterior and action scenes, while the music by John Ottman (X2, Superman Returns) is excellent at adding a bit of sonic bite. The dialogue is easily discernible and the background noises never nullify what's important. All in all, the tech specs here are appropriate for a 2009 major studio release.
Aside from a collection of alternate and deleted scenes, including an alternate ending which clearly suggested a sequel, the added content here is minimal, to say the least. Apparently, the only other available extras are on the Blu-ray release.
Here's the problem with the narrative nonsense that constantly pervades Orphan's attempts at terror: they constantly pull you out of the experience, making you question the intelligence and maturity of the people making such boneheaded decisions. As a result, any dread or fear that director Jaume Collet-Serra brings to the material is instantly dissipated. Some won't care about the apparent contrivances, coincidences, and convolutions. For them, this film will remain a Recommended (or higher) experience. But for this longtime horror hound, Esther was only interesting once she stopped playing nice and pulled out the butcher knife. Until then, this was almost certainly a Skip It. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth about this film. On a second viewing, it's easier to get into the rhythms of what the story is trying to accomplish. For this reason, a Rent It will act as a compromise. This movie has definitely problems, and it's certainly not the classic that some critics would have you believe. Somewhere between great and grating, the Colemans and their killer kid are working things out. Perhaps at 90 minutes it would have been dynamite. At nearly two hours, it's rather tedious.