Orphan: Creepy Kid Thriller Adopts a Fun Twist on Familiar Story

Kids are evil. Anyone who has stepped on a random LEGO piece or been forced to watch Paw Patrol knows this to be true. Okay, kids aren’t really evil but there’s certainly something creepy about children doing terrible things. This in part reflects our attributing innocence to childhood. As such, the corruption of innocence is, in and of itself, horrifying. And horror movies have exploited this fear for decades. Perhaps the most famous example, The Exorcist, shocked audiences with its story of pure evil corrupting childhood innocence. Other horror movies have frightened with stories of children as vehicles of evil themselves. The Omen, for instance, casts its antagonist as the literal spawn of Satan. More commonly, Hollywood loves the “Bad Seed” narrative – the remorseless psychopath seemingly born without a conscience. Though it looked like another generic “creepy kid” movie, Orphan proved to be a surprise box office hit in 2009.

Synopsis

Following the stillbirth of their third child, John and Kate Coleman’s marriage becomes strained. Now recovering from alcoholism, Kate still struggles to deal with the loss. In the hopes of re-kindling their family bond, John and Kate turn to adoption. And when they bring home the extremely bright nine-year-old Esther, things finally seem to turn around. But something’s not quite with Esther. The Coleman’s oldest son, Daniel, knows it. Soon Kate senses something is off with their newest family member. As seemingly random “accidents” mount at school and home, Kate becomes increasingly desperate to convince John that Esther poses a dangerous risk to their family.

Orphan Manages to Distinguish Itself from Its Derivative Premise

In several ways, Orphan is really two different movies. By all accounts, Orphan doesn’t deviate from the “creepy kid” movie template found in movies like The Bad Seed or The Good Son. And these movies fall under the wider umbrella of conventional psycho-horror thrillers that permeated the late 80’s and early 90’s. Maybe you remember movies like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Pacific Heights, Single White Female, or The Crush. Each of these movies follows a familiar narrative. A seemingly benign character enters the life of a person or family, happy on the surface, but secretly in crisis. Of course, this character is a threat – a psychopath with bad intent. But only the main protagonist recognizes the threat. Everyone ignores or misses obvious warning signs. “Accidents” happen. Eventually, everyone clues in and the protagonist kills the threat.

…Collet-Serra has a good grasp for horror sensibilities and suspense.

In just about every respect, Orphan is the same as all these movies. Very little about the movie is original. However, Orphan diverges from these other titles courtesy of a more brutal tone and Jaume Collet-Serra’s stylish direction. With some shocking, bloody violence, Orphan earns its R-rating. Moreover, Orphan doesn’t shy away from putting its child actors in uncomfortably dangerous situations. As a filmmaker, Collet-Serra has a good grasp for horror sensibilities and suspense. His House of Wax remake was much better than it had any right to be. And The Shallows is one of the best killer shark thrillers in recent memory. Though Orphan isn’t innovative, Collet-Serra paints up formulaic scares with style to spare.

Orphan Makes Preposterous Twist Work

Everyone loves a good twist. But not every movie can be The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. For every 1968 Planet of the Apes twist, there’s a 2001 Planet of the Apes “shocker”. Even M Night Shyamalan has failed more often then he’s succeeded at pulling the wool over audiences’ eyes. While Orphan’s third-act shocker is preposterous, Collet-Serra makes it work. No, it’s not believable. But Collet-Serra foreshadows it often enough and the execution is solid. Besides, the alternative to what’s already an uncomfortable set-up is much worse. Most importantly, Orphan’s twist doesn’t undermine the move up to that point. Ultimately, it’s a bit of story-telling that makes the movie instantly more memorable had it not existed.

Grade A Cast Does Wonders With Grade B Material

Despite its B-material and campy twist, Orphan boasts an A-level casts that lends legitimacy to Collet-Serra’s serious approach. Veteran character actor, CCH Pounder (Demon Knight) and indie-star, Peter Sarsgaard, elevate what are essentially cookie-cutter roles. As “Sister Abigail”, Pounder’s role is limited to necessary plot exposition and reminding the audience of “Esther’s” capability for violence. But Orphan’s screenplay saddles Sarsgaard with an even more thankless role. As mentioned above, every psycho-horror thriller needs a blissfully unaware character to “gaslight” its protagonist. Without this character, the movie would end rather quickly. And it’s Sarsgaard’s “John” that fills in as this clueless trope. To his credit, Sarsgaard does wonders with the role.

And Isabelle Fuhrman stuns as the manipulative and volatile, “Esther”.

Not surprisingly, however, Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) nearly steals the movie with her performance. Even with a character that conforms to most genre conventions, Farmiga infuses “Kate” with a convincing mix of wounded vulnerability and maternal strength. There’s an incredible range to her performance that makes you forget that the movie’s premise is somewhat silly. Of course, “creepy kid” movies don’t work unless their child actors are convincing. And Isabelle Fuhrman stuns as the manipulative and volatile, “Esther”. Furhman’s ability to shift gears from icy cold to enraged in just moments gives her character an unpredictable storm-like quality. Like Farmiga’s performance, Fuhrman helps you forget that you’re watching a B-movie with high production values.

Orphan a Surprisingly Good B-Movie Psycho-Thriller

Courtesy of a wild twist, strong performances, and stylish direction, Orphan is much better than expected. Somehow the thriller rises above its formulaic story and stands out. As a filmmaker, Collet-Serra finds ways to put a “fresh coat of paint” on scares we’ve all seen in other horror movies. Maybe critics gave Orphan a lukewarm response, but it’s worth adopting into your horror movie playlist.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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