Ever since the advent of Mervyn LeRoy's original 1956 classic "The Bad Seed", 'Children who do bad things' have periodically both fascinated and repelled cinema-going audiences. This type of child character has become one of the most simple and direct storytelling motifs screenwriters have yet devised for suggesting the disturbing yet traditionally compelling possibility that inherent -- or inherited -- evil exists as a core element of the human condition. There is a heightened visual incongruity, undoubtedly very appealing cinematically (especially from a Horror movie's point of view), in the depiction of excessively angelic-looking little people being shown knowingly acting out all the most brutal examples of adult devilry one can imagine, and then deliberately setting-about fooling unsuspecting adults with a guileful, overdeveloped ingenuity for manipulation. True life cases of children who have killed have never failed to both horrify and confuse as we try in vain to peer beyond their sullied masks of childhood innocence: it's an idea that simultaneously upends all our most cherished and unquestioned 19th Century notions concerning the unalloyed purity supposedly embodied in the childhood state, while also offering the oddly comforting respite that some people are just born plain evil and there's nothing to be done about it but dole out the righteous punishment.
Recently, this latter notion has gained added piquancy in the form of modern worries relating to notions of untamed children gone feral through lack of -- or inadequate -- parental instruction: 'Hoddie-Horror' movies such as the French thriller "Them" or British-made "Eden Lake" trade on societal breakdown fears, with their images of tooled-up little hooded terrors bringing chaos and destruction to adults who've been rendered authoritatively useless and inadequate -- and so mired in non-interventionist liberal shibboleths that they are incapable of offering any opposition to a diabolical, pint-sized reign of terror.
Fifty years after Rhoda Penmark proved so outrageous to 1950s audiences of "The Bad Seed" that she had to be literally struck down by an act of God in the film's revised ending so as to restore her troubled audiences' shattered sense of the ordained moral order of things, Warner Brothers return to the theme for a wham-bam, in-yer-face modern-day take on the Evil Child sub-genre that works on these modern fears while also ably re-treading the traditional bad seed motifs. "Orphan" is a grimly entertaining entry, adding one last Final Act tweak to the formula that controversially plops one of its teeny-tiny kiddie-sized feet forcefully in the unfashionably conservative 'family-under-threat-from-the-other' genre, once so comprehensively cornered by Stephen Spielberg in the '70s and '80s.
Spanish-born director Jaume Collet-Serra leaves little room for subtlety (as already demonstrated in his gore-soaked 2005 retooling of "House of Wax"), and if "Orphan" bangs out a few too many unnecessary jolts and jumps in its first half-hour, when it could have done with a more restrained approach to its build up, the liberal-baiting agenda of its barely-below-the-surface subtext is followed through with such a macabre relish in its middle section and in its over-the-top and utterly loony (but somewhat overlong) climax, that one can't help eventually succumbing to the mean spirited nastiness of it all, and being willingly swept up by the film's delicious, yet thoroughly disreputable, logic.
Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) appear to have it all: a large, architecturally modern home (designed by the husband) in the picture-postcard wilds of a snowbound Connecticut; two lovely children -- a boisterous son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and his younger, angelic sister Max (Aryana Engineer) -- and a loving relationship. Things are not quite as perfect as they would seem below this successful veneer, though, particularly for ex-Yale piano teacher, Kate. She's a recovering alcoholic, still in therapy and feeling guilt for an accident a year previously which saw the deaf Max nearly drown in an icy lake, John only just coming to the child's rescue in time while Kate was too drunk to look out for her own daughter. The descent into alcoholism was prompted by unresolved grief over the couple's stillborn daughter, Jessica -- a tragedy which still prompts recurring nightmares and which is now commemorated, by Kate especially, with a plaque and a carefully tended rose garden she has cultivated in the greenhouse.
Now the couple want to put the pain of the past behind them and offer their unclaimed love to a disadvantaged, parentless child from one of the Catholic-run orphanages across state. Prompted to have a casual look around the rambling, old-fashioned building by the presiding Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), John stumbles upon nine-year old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) sitting on her own in one of the upstairs classrooms, knocking out precociously accomplished paintings and sketches with disconcerting confidence and ease while warbling a Russian-accented version of 'That's the Glory of Love' to herself. Kate and John are soon wowed by the child's talent and maturity, and beguiled by her otherworldly strangeness: her polite manner and antiquated dress-sense -- her pretty bows and velvet ribbons and pleated Victorian skirts making her look almost like a nursery rhyme character come to life. Sister Abigail relates how the Russian-born child lost her family in a tragic house fire, and when told how difficult it has been for the orphanage to place foreign-born older children, the Colemans quickly decide that Esther would be the addition to their incomplete home who could best help make their lives whole again.
At first Esther does indeed appear to be the perfect little princess, dutifully learning sign language in order to communicate more effectively with her immediately welcoming and trusting young stepsister, Max, and meticulously saying Grace before every meal. Daniel is not quite so enthusiastic, being less than happy about the constant teasing he now has to endure because of his 'freakish' new sister's bizarre dress sense and slightly odd manner. But it's not long before another side of the child begins to make itself felt. Little Esther seems more than usually keen to dispose of a crippled pigeon by squashing it to a pulp with a rock in front of Daniel and Max; and Max loyally covers for her new sister at first, after Esther methodically revenges herself on a particularly obnoxious school bully by pushing her from the top of a playground slide while nobody but an understandably conflicted Max is looking.
The 'accident' begins to set Kate thinking hard as well. And there are other little signs that suggest something is terribly, terribly wrong with sweet little Esther: she drops the F-bomb in front of Kate with casual disregard for censure, and after painstakingly teaching the child to play the piano for several weeks, Kate accidentally walks in on her banging out a virtuoso rendition of a Tchaikovsky piece! And why is she so insistent on keeping those bows and ribbons on at all times? When Sister Abigail phones with the news that Esther has had a history of being in and around the vicinity during several other apparent 'accidents' in the past -- oh, and by the way, there's a question mark over that 'tragic' house fire in which Esther's relatives died: it appears to have been arson, and the perpetrator was never caught! -- Kate tries to voice her worries to a complacent and disbelieving John, but to no avail. Everyone else is thoroughly smitten with the always smiling little charmer! As Kate's concerns become more acute, Esther becomes more manipulative still, terrorising the two children into keeping some terrible secrets and making them accomplices after she commits a calculated act of murder with a hammer ("I'll cut your hairless little prick off before you even learn what it's for!" she whispers to a terrified Daniel, creeping up to him in his bed at the dead of night and putting a box cutter to his throat).
As she becomes ever-more suspicious, Kate soon becomes a target for the manipulative little madam's beady-eyed scheming. The inveterate flaws in the family's structural make-up are cleverly and ruthlessly exploited by the child, who is fully prepared even to break her own arm by snapping it in a vice so that she can all the more effectively stitch Kate up for drunken abuse! By then, even her therapist is convinced that Kate has been hitting the bottle again, and that Esther is merely a blameless victim of circumstance, crying out for love. But a chance discovery in the weird child's hidden leather-bound bible furnishes Kate with the name of a mysterious Estonian establishment called the Saarne Institute, and is the key to the discovery of an astonishing secret that will force Kate to fight for the very lives of every member of her rapidly disintegrating family.
If Eli Roth's two "Hostel" films taught us that we shouldn't trust johnny foreigner on their home ground, "Orphan" very adroitly makes us party to the view that we shouldn't let them anywhere near our homes or our kids either! Not since "Fatal Attraction" has such an apparently benign and conventional popular horror-thriller vehicle been so lambasted by certain quarters of the critical community; epithets such as "trash", "sleazy" and "repellent" have been frequently used in relation to it, yet this is no leering torture porn flick or dingy sexploitation fare -- this is a well-crafted mainstream suspense flick that plays every trick at its disposal with unerring exactitude. The cast are all solid players, which seems to have only enraged the film's detractors all the more: Peter Sarsgaard is the reliable everyman, his character completely unequipped to accept even the possibility of Esther's evil malignance; while Vera Farmiga perfectly embodies the winsome fragility of a woman who can't make anyone else around her see the stark truth that is staring them in the face. What are such fine actors doing slumming it in such reprehensible material? the film's critics ask.
The key to the film's success lies mainly in the work of child actor Isabelle Fuhrman, who is carrying here the enormous responsibility of bringing to life one of the most bizarre Horror villains of recent times, the true implications of whom she (hopefully) is not even old enough to fully appreciate. Director Jaume Collet-Serra tackles the business with a conventional Hollywood eye, slapping in all the usual sudden scare stabs that would usually be held to denote lack of imagination, though, here, no-one can accuse this film of not coming up with a memorable angle on its subject matter. Fuhrman is always compelling as her character sets about her murderous activities, gleefully slaying a little-suspecting nun in a rain of hammer blows (after forcing the woman's car to a sudden stop by pushing Max in front of it!), then expertly disposing of all the incriminating evidence including the bloody murder weapon, while her barely comprehending stepsister looks on in bewilderment. The extra little fillip of terror the film delivers with its insane final Act revelations tip the film into uncomfortable quasi-paedo territory that would surely defeat most child actors, but Fuhrman carries it off with aplomb.
The film has no qualms at all in deriving most of its suspense from placing a pretty-looking disabled child in mortal danger for most of its run-time and there's no doubting the dubious association the film makes in pitting an untrustworthy, unscrupulous and profoundly inscrutable foreign 'other' against the well-meaning affluence of some emotionally bereft American parents and a host of liberal-minded institutions, such as the occupational therapists and professional child carers whose world view cannot countenance the possibility of unadulterated evil lurking in such a perfectly demure freckle-faced form.
It's this morally murky element which has inspired such a backlash in some quarters, and it is precisely that which makes the film such a rewarding viewing experience for the Horror connoisseur. Many of the best Horror movies shamelessly exploit some of our less admirable impulses and prejudices. That doesn't mean we're necessarily assenting to them when we allow ourselves to be manipulated for a few hours by films such as "Orphan"; if anything, by exaggerating these prejudices for the purposes of entertainment, we're often allowing some harsh unforgiving light to be thrown on some aspects of ourselves we'd much rather remained occluded by 'good taste' and polite opinion. "Orphan" ruthlessly homes in on some unpleasant xenophobic qualms and exploits ingrained clichés that cast vulnerable orphan children as potentially disruptive 'cuckoos in the nest', but it does so with such overstated efficiency that it only highlights their inherent ridiculousness. The film has been justly derided though for several huge lapses in believability and some glaring plot holes, but this is a modern-day adult fairy tale that ultimately delivers its chills in a way that still feels fresh, taking the best from past Evil Kids in movies such as Damien Thorn in "The Omen" and Macaully Culkin's Henry Evans in "The Good Son", and adding a fiendish little twist all of its own that will be a talking point for some time to come.
Optimum Releasing deliver the UK DVD edition in a crisp, fine looking print with the choice of a punchy 5.1 surround sound or 2.0 stereo. The extras are pretty thin on the ground and consist of a fifteen minute featurette which sees various production members, online critics (who cares what they think!?) and psychologists (?) weighing in on the Evil Child genre and its themes, interspersed with constant clips from the movie you've just been watching for the last two hours. There are also eighteen minutes-worth of interviews with the film's director Jaume Collet-Serra, Dark Castle production team, Joel Silver and Susan Downey, and the child actress who plays Esther, Isabelle Fuhrman; and four minutes-worth of rather unnecessary deleted scenes that add little of importance to the film. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included, which struggles to convey the film's themes without giving away to much of the actual content, resorting in the end to a barrage of flash frames that give away too much, but with such rapid fire editing and in such a jumbled order that it's impossible to take too much in. The film is also available in a Blu-ray edition.
I enjoyed "Orphan" a lot and was surprised by the depth of critical opprobrium it has earned and the amount of vitriol heaped upon it by many critics. Sure, it's ridiculous if you stop to think about it for more than five seconds but, then again, most horror films are. This one delivers everything you expect from such a flick and does so in fine style, in my opinion. It's well worth a look. But please, no sequels!