Orphan: Orphanarium, Part Deux

One of the first movies I blogged about was the Spanish horror film The Orphanage. So it’s only fitting to make my last movie blog about the new horror movie The Orphan. Except, of course that this has no connection with that Spanish film, and I’m not going to stop blogging as far as I know.

Other than that, there’s a real poetry here.

Let me just say up front that this is a really, really solid horror flick. I mean, great. Up there with Drag Me To Hell but completely the opposite in tone: Deadly serious.

There was one problem, however: It’s mid-summer, it’s a horror film, which means it’s hard to see it without there being a large percentage of assholes in the audience. And our showing had more than the usual amount. It’s always male teens, of course, whose concept of masculinity is so poor, they feel compelled to prove it by “acting tough” during a horror movie. Half the audience was texting, too.

Really, I should have known better. And I do, but I forget because I’m not all that tied into “summer” and I usually go to the local art house where the big peril is the old folks.

Anyway, back to the movie. This is part of the “Bad Seed” genre, where a young couple (the annoyingly familiar-but-not-quite-identifiable-to-me Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiger) go to adopt a child to compensate for a recent stillborn.

There they meet the delightful Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) who makes rather good oil paintings and sings old show tunes, while not really blending in with the other kids. John and Kate (yes, that is the parents’ names) decide to adopt this quirky kid and bring her home.

Where she immediately sets about killing all who stand in her way. OK, not really. In fact, the initial treatment she receives from her peers (and older brother) is pretty awful. Still, you’re not quite sympathetic because she really does come across as malevolent.

The movie escalates bit-by-bit as Esther reveals more of her true nature and is required to take more and more drastic means to cover up her crimes. She’s also clearly driving a wedge between John and Kate.

You know, I dislike this genre almost as much as I dislike “House of Usher”-type movies (i.e., movies where it’s apparent from the start that the characters are doomed); I think it’s kind of a cheap shot to jeopardize children and put them in the position of evildoers. (Roger Ebert, who gave this movie 3.5 stars said something similar about the late Gene Siskel. I think it’s kind of sweet of him to bring his old partner up.)

Yet, this is a genuinely great horror flick; It manages to present many of the common genre tropes (murderous children, weird sexual overtones, etc) but without falling into the merely unpleasant or icky–the usual fate of such films.

Yes, there is a twist to this film. It occurred to me almost immediately but the movie rather adroitly made me forget about it until about the third act, by which time there were only a few ways the story could go and still make sense. Often after the big reveal, horror movies kind of peter out and coast along, but this one kept going right up to the very last moment.

A huge amount of credit has to go to the young actress playing Esther. (Sure, her Russian accent comes and goes, but it would in real-life, too.) Alternately beautiful and charming, and cold and psychopathic, she bears the brunt of conveying the horror. Kate must be believably menaced by Esther, and this comes off nicely, though the script gets a lot of credit there for not relying too heavily on any particular trope.

That is, when you have a menacing child, there are only a few ways to go to string the movie out, and this one hits them all, but none of them ridiculously hard. Farmiga is not entirely credible due to past history, but the movie doesn’t rest solely on that. And she realizes Esther is off in a serious way, but not one that would justify drastic measures until the end. And then there’s the whole social issue of “troubled children”.

Again, that very delicate balancing act of “well, that’s creepy” versus “well, that’s just downright unpleasant”.

Also true of Sarsgaard, who must be the bland, committed father who is unaware that he’s being manipulated by his new daughter. (All fathers are manipulated, of course, it’s just the unaware part that’s bad. Heh.) Margo Martindale (“Dexter”’s woman in search of the perfect key-lime pie) plays the dull, easily manipulated psychiatrist–sort of a mandatory part for this kind of movie–infuriatingly convcingly.

The siblings (Jimmy Bennet, Aryana Engineer) do an excellent job as well. Interactions with other children are another way that these movies can go off the rails, but the dynamics are handled excellently and rather lightly, in the sense that the movies stays especially focused on Kate and Esther, rather than Esther and her siblings.

A lot of care and thought went into lighting, shooting, music, editing–nothing looks “phoned in”. All-in-all, a very watchable horror flick. Not super-violent, but nonetheless very “adult themed”–not for kids. Two hours long, too, without feeling as long as some 90 minute horrors I’ve seen.

The Boy commented that he wasn’t into it–I think he was especially distracted by the jackasses in the audience–but that it kept drawing him back in. That’s about right. The movie really did overcome the bad audience.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers David Johnson and Alex Mace don’t have much in the way of credits, and at this point in my life I’m inclined to regard this film as kind of a fluke where everything comes together just so. Nonetheless, I’ll be watching to see what they do next to see if they can duplicate their success here.

This joins the ranks of our “Best of 2009”: The Brothers Bloom, Up and Drag Me To Hell–and it lacks the last’s lame horror ending. So, you know: Check it out.

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