They remain the last cinematic taboo, a sinister subject that gets bandied about once every decade or so before crawling back into the annals of scary movie manipulation to fester for a few more years. Each time it’s dragged out, audience respond with a combination of shock and indignance, wondering how anyone could taint the innocent of a child like that. You guessed it - the evil kid killer is back, an archetype made infamous by Patty McCormick in 1956’s The Bad Seed.
Since then, we’ve had grindhouse versions (Harry Novak’s The Child), post-modern rewrite (The Exorcist, The Omen) noble TV attempts (Child of Rage) and the notorious Macaulay Culkin vehicle The Good Son, each one taking the offspring and turning them into something awful. Sadly, none of them can match the latest installment in the wicked wee one horror show, Orphan (new to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video). What it lacks in scares, suspense, thrills, chills, pacing, plot development, logic, realism, authenticity, and satisfaction, it definitely makes up for in fudged up homicidal brattling…and that’s about it.
Esther is an odd child. When John and Kate first meet her at a local orphanage, she is shy and distant. Taking an instant liking to the family, the couple feels safe in bringing her into their fragile home. You see, Kate is a recovering alcoholic, and during one particularly memorable bender, her deaf daughter Maxine slipped into a nearby pond and almost drowned. John saved her life, and helped his spouse sober up. Along with son Daniel, things were starting to look up for the Colemans. Then Kate’s last pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Thus, the decision to adopt.
At first, Esther is odd addition to the clan, but tries to fit in. She wears frilly dresses and ribbons around her neck and wrists. She draws the ridicule of her new classmates, and Kate begins to grown suspicious of her new, nosy daughter. Within a few short weeks, Esther has scared poor Maxine and Daniel into submission, and a few “accidents” have left people injured…or missing. When Kate decides to look into Esther’s past, the unassuming kid turns from polite to psychotic, doing anything she can to protect her “secret.” Suddenly, the Colemans are all in danger.
If you’re looking for a fright flick that does its damnedest to get by on contrivances, coincidences, and outright plot convolutions, Orphan is it. Existing in a parallel universe where nine year olds are adopted without much legal (or medical) wrangling, where the local branch of Child Protective Services is apparently on extended vacation, and where the prissy manipulative nonsense of an Eastern European eccentric takes precedence over common sense, supposed intelligence, and the obvious arrival of some incredibly bad luck. No one seems the least bit concerned that Esther is a cheeky manipulator, overplaying her “glad to be part of the clan” conceits to the hilt. Everyone assumes it’s an expression of happiness, even when her “Helter Skelter” maniac eyes give her away.
Even worse, parents John and Kate (how apropos) have opposite ways of dealing with this newfound affection. He thinks Esther is just peachy keen, capable of nothing more than big fat hugs and butterfly kisses. She thinks her new daughter is a demon. Such extremes make many of the interpersonal machinations between the couple hard to swallow. Every time Kate has a legitimate concern about her safety - say, when Daniel’s treehouse goes up in a blaze of lighter fluid fueled-glory (with Daniel in it), John thinks she’s nutso…or worse, back on the sauce. Even during one of the film’s most outrageous moments, he blames himself for giving off the wrong signals to Esther (rationalizing with a grade schooler - never a good sign).
And then there’s the pacing. House of Wax remaker Jaume Collet-Serra spends so much time setting things up, over an hour’s worth of handwringing and touchy feely kvetching that we wonder if Esther’s secret is that she’s just an incredible asshole. Granted, actress Isabelle Fuhrman gives good jerk, but it’s not until much later in the plot that she lets her inner Voorhees shine. By then, we’ve been lulled into a sense of scripted stupidity. David Leslie Johnson apparently created his narrative out of old fright flick beats, false scares, and one iffy reveal, telegraphing much of his purpose (beyond the ending) to anyone old enough to remember the rules of terror. Sure, we feel our pulse race when Esther removes the parking brake and sends the family SUV careening down a hill, little Maxine inside and a sequence shrouded in blacklight also works well. But to get to that material we have to slog through moments crafted directly out of the direct to video terror tome.
You really do have to buy a great deal of bullspit to believe in what Orphan is offering. No one thinks like its 2009, an era of skepticism and overreaction. Everyone is nonsensically gullible to a fault. Even the deleted scenes and alternate ending offered on the new Blu-ray release of the film fail to fill in the gaps created by an attempt at atmosphere over realism or rationality. Instead of turning Esther into Michael Myers with worse fashion sense, why not show how a young child deals with being adopted into a troubled family, her missed signals and unmet needs slowly turning into confusion, and then rage. But then we wouldn’t get the serial killer slice and dice at the end, or the overwrought “huh” of the twist.
While it’s true that some of Orphan works (good vs. evil smackdowns always have a way of satisfying our innate bloodlust), but most of it is one big schlock tease. When taken in total, Esther is a remarkable creation, something that could have functioned expertly within a much better film. But Collet-Serra style is so frustrating, and Johnson script so aggravating that we wish a studio-sponsored killer kid would show up and simply thin out a few in the crew. There is nothing wrong with bringing back the evil child for a post-millennial update and Fuhrman’s performance guarantees that she’ll have a few more cracks at making a major motion picture impact. But Orphan is not very good. At 90 minutes, it might have been amazing. At two hours, it’s tedious.