The small but effective “adoption horror” subgenre has a certain formula that it follows. The new adoptee gradually dismantles the family unit, whether it’s manipulating the systems around him or simply taking matters into his own hands. Then, once someone becomes aware of the evil, they either stop the young menace or die trying. As entertaining as these types of films are, they walk a well-worn path. Orphan follows many of the same conventions as its ilk, but this 2009 film also brings something new and exciting to the kids’ table.
When Alex Maceit is original idea for Orphan reached for the first time David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrickthe then-full screenwriter was given a large sandbox to play in. After all, Mace’s treatment was only a few pages long, so there were plenty of gaps to fill. And while domestic troublemakers The bad seed and the good son are obvious influences, Johnson-McGoldrick attributes Alfred Hitchcock shadow of a doubt as well. He liked the idea of a story where only the audience really knows something is wrong, while the protagonist is still piecing together clues.
Like other similar movies, Orphan begins with a family opening up to a new member. Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga, Pierre Sarsgaard) had their fair share of difficulties before considering adoption; their third child was stillborn, and their second, Max (Engineer Ariana), lost his hearing in an accident. However, the couple still have a lot of love to share and they want to give it “to someone who really needs it”. Here between Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the lucky recipient of said love. From the start, Esther is not like the other children in the orphanage; she’s smart, she’s a gifted painter, and she has an old-fashioned sense of style, including the curious ribbons always around her neck and wrists. Another thing that sets Esther apart from her peers is an exceptional but hidden aptitude for wickedness.
Esther’s transition is not easy; she doesn’t fit in at home or at school. His new brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) goes on a rampage because he feels neglected, and Esther’s classmates think she’s completely crazy. Kate and John want to protect their new daughter, but the public quickly realizes that the other children of Orphan don’t just haze the new kid on the block or show signs of jealousy. On the contrary, they realized that something was very wrong with Esther, long before the adults did.
The pleasure of Orphan really begins when there is no longer any doubt about Esther. His odd behavior can no longer be called growing pains, precociousness, or narrative deception. Esther’s “good girl” act hits the ground with a thud as she picks up a hammer from a nun (CCH Book) head, hides the body in a tree house and ultimately threatens to castrate Daniel if he tells anyone. It takes an hour to get to this point, but viewers’ patience is rewarded and more.
Being as smart and perceptive as she is, Esther realizes that her biggest enemy in the Coleman household isn’t actually the other kids. No, it’s the matriarch, whose rocky past can be used against her. Esther launches a series of misadventures all designed to make Kate look like a terrible mother. This includes Kate’s threat of sobriety, Esther breaking her arm to imply abuse, and most importantly, endangering Max and Daniel. Orphan does a great job of making Esther a cunning and cruel creature, whose cunning goes beyond her years.
Every moment of this thriller is crucial in telling the tragic story of the Colemans. From Kate’s depression to parents’ infighting, Johnson-McGoldrick plumbs the depths of this family’s endless problems, exposing weak spots Esther can tackle. The storyline was set up in the face of a writer’s strike, but make no mistake, Orphan is not a random horror. The writing deftly displays Kate and John’s underlying issues, diffuses their glaring flaws, and still makes the two characters likable. Esther herself doesn’t get as much emotional care, even after the mask is ripped off. Yet there is a deep, unspoken sadness in the girl, evidenced by actions rather than words.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra returned to Dark Castle after directing the quasi-remake wax house in 2005. And like this long slasher, Orphan take the scenic route. Parts of the script were combined to reduce the number of scenes, but the final cut of the film still takes almost two hours. Luckily, lead performance makes it easier to reduce the too-long duration. Every minute with Esther is fascinating; this pigtailed hell steals every scene she’s in. Fuhrman and Farmiga both have natural charisma and talent, though Fuhrman’s extra training outpaces his senior. In addition to remembering all his lines, the young actor had to pick up an accent and learn sign language. Her efforts paid off though, as people walk away from this movie remembering Esther, not the length.
Anyone who walks into the film, with no idea what’s to come, is naturally anticipating a demon spawn. The most rotten egg imaginable. The film delivers on its promise, as Esther’s character makes Rhoda Penmark, the original Bad Seed, look wholesome by comparison. What they didn’t count on was Orphan delivering the most absurd horror twist of the 2000s, a decade already known for its left-hand turns. Partly ripped from the headlines, especially the case of Barbora Skrlova, the film catches everyone off guard when Esther is revealed to be a 33-year-old woman with hypopituitarism. As if this story couldn’t get any wilder, it outdoes itself without any excuses.
There really is something wrong with Esther, and to this day, fans are still eager to find out what it is. A big part of this film’s success is undoubtedly Fuhrman, but this final act rug pull pushes this one in one direction. And by both meeting expectations and delivering a substantial surprise at the end, Orphan has rightfully become one of the most enjoyable and twisting thrillers of the past twenty years.
Horror contemplates in detail how young people deal with outsized situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of all ages to face their fears, it is particularly concerned with how young people might fare in life-and-death scenarios.
The column new blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young people on the brink of terror.