31 by 31 Challenge #13: ORPHAN (2009)

@craiggors

Most of us remember the fanfare under which Orphan was first released in 2009, namely the shocking nature of the twist that had everyone all atwitter (no, that Twitter didn’t exist yet). It certainly left it’s mark on the box office, yet interestingly–especially for horror–wasn’t followed up by any sequels or obvious knock-offs either (although I’d guess that The Prodigy from earlier this year draws on a few elements from Orphan). It’s not a perfect film by any measure–it embraces too many tropes in a quest to subvert expectations–but it’s well-acted, unquestionably creepy, and surprisingly cold-blooded at times.

Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) have suffered a terrible tragedy and are wading through lives plagued with grief, mistrust, and guilt. To complete their family and bring hope back into their lives, they make the decision to adopt 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan with a penchant for painting and Victorian dresses. She’s charming and talented and seemingly just what the Coleman family needs. But something is wrong with Esther, and as Kate begins to see a different side to her adopted daughter she questions what sort of child she’s brought into her home, leading to cracks in her marriage, dangerous situations, and the sinister reveal of Esther’s true identity.

Even knowing the infamous twist as so many of us do now, Orphan is masterful at eliciting righteous anger in the viewer in the form of Farmiga’s Kate, who we know is right about Esther, but must suffer watching as those that should support her refuse to believe her claims, leaving her the lone protector of her family. We’ve all been in situations where no one believed the truth we were screaming at the top of our lungs, and it’s a uniquely infuriating feeling of helplessness that this film captures with aplomb. Kate is flawed, as is her husband, and it makes their dynamic authentic and relatable. The viewer is left to cringe at the cruelty of what Esther inflicts on this already vulnerable and fractured family, complete with jealous son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and hearing-impaired daughter Max (Aryana Engineer), who’s seeking a role model in her new sister.

It helps that all of the performers are committed and watchable. Scream Queen Farmiga brings her signature style to frazzled Kate, while Fuhrman transcends as Esther, the linchpin performance of the film. She makes each of Esther’s increasingly dramatic turns believable, skyrocketing to the ranks of Linda Blair, Harvey Stephens, and Patty McCormack when it comes to exalted child actors in horror. These rock solid performances make it easier to forgive the frequent jump scares and the less swallow-able plot points. Add in the fact that the film can be downright brutal, as when Esther dispatches CCH Pounder’s Sister Abigail, and Orphan more than makes up for its deficiencies and earns it’s place amongst the psycho child horror film hall of fame.

Despite the bumps and bruises, Orphan holds up a decade on, and the bizarre premise has become less outlandish in the wake of the recent news story out of Indiana concerning the Barnett family and their adopted daughter Natalia Grace. For more information on that developing story, check out Episode 70 of the podcast. In the meantime, look closely at the children in your lives. Are you sure they’re really in the third grade? Better go over those dental records one more time…

Orphan

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

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