Retro Review: ORPHAN (2009){0}

Sometimes a scary movie is a glass-half-full proposition, and sometimes it’s a half-empty one. This was the first thing to pop into my head upon sitting down to review the new “scary kid” flick Orphan, and I guess that’s my brain’s way of saying “It’s half-decent and half-goofy. Midway between surprisingly compelling and predictably familiar. For every good performance, there’s an editing blunder, and for every spark of visual style there’s a screenwriting screw-up that negates some of the better bits.”

Yep, it’s full-bore so-so from stem to stern, but given the current state of horror films in general, I suppose “so-so” from a studio horror flick is better than most of what we’re offered these days. And so I opt to flop on the side of “positive, but only slightly.”

If you’ve ever seen films like The Bad SeedThe OmenThe Good Son, or either of the films called The Children, then you’re already halfway finished with Orphan. Directed crisply and with a palpable air of mid-’70s paranoia thriller, Orphan takes its good sweet time in doling out the chills, but here’s the irony; Most horror film “talky bits” are clumsy exposition (at best) or time-filling wheel-spinning (at worst), but Orphan seems very interested in (get this) setting up its characters! As if it was a legitimate drama or something! Best of all, the 30-some minutes of set-up (Orphan runs a full two hours) are anchored by some great work by lead actors Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. It’s not just that the performances are strong or that the couple strikes an effortless chemistry … but the screenplay (by David Johnson) is actually interesting in a low-key, domestic way. Some would say that Farmiga’s performance in particular is almost “too good” for a basic horror film, but the actress brings a matter-of-fact vulnerability that elevates the film every five minutes.

If only the rest of the film were up to Farmiga’s level, we’d have an instant classic of some sort. Unfortunately things start to go immediately downhill once this affluent couple decide to adopt a mysterious Russian girl named Esther — even though they already have two biological children of their own. (It’s this aspect that offers a quiet but interesting perspective that maybe the subsequent horrors occur because the couple needed one “extra” kid instead of focusing on the ones they already have.) Of course there are numerous skeletons in Esther’s closet, but her newly-adopted family also seems to be harboring some darkness as well. Mom battled the bottle after losing an infant during childbirth and Dad did some unpleasant things too.

So with strong performances, a confident visual approach, and a more-than-slightly familiar screenplay (that, to be fair, is a bit “deeper” than one might expect from a studio-release horror flick), Orphan would easily qualify for a weekend rental or a summer afternoon matinee  — but not much more than that.  After laying down a foundation with three such interesting characters, it’s a bit of a disappointment when Orphan suddenly transforms into a rather standard “killer kid” movie (with a murder scene that pretty much reeks of re-shoots). The film does offer a few wild surprises along the way, and they help to keep Act III chugging along, but I’m sure there’s got to be a way to add a few new sparks to this sort of horror film. Orphan gives it a few strong tries, but seems to succumb to formula well before the end credits start to roll.