| July 26, 2009

I feel compelled to offer a confession right up front: I consider 2005’s House of Wax remake a guilty pleasure. I thought it had some interesting ideas and some visuals that were creepy and imaginative, and certainly a notch better than most of Dark Castle Films’ output up to that time. It’s been a while since Dark Castle has released a new horror film (after taking a genre detour with last year’s RocknRolla), and to my surprise they brought back House of Wax director Jaume Collet-Serra for an original take on the “killer kid” subgenre, Orphan. Being a somewhat closeted fan of Collet-Serra’s previous film, I thought his new one would be worth a watch.
And it definitely is– Orphan is a surprisingly effective take on the “killer kid” film. In some ways it plays like the pulp answer to 2007’s Joshua, not least because both films share a cast member in a major role: in both films, Vera Farmiga plays a troubled mother. However, if Joshua plays more like a modern take on Rosemary’s Baby, Orphan is more along the lines of an updated Devil Times Five, although it takes itself a bit too seriously.
Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard play Kate and John Coleman, a married couple with two children who are looking to adopt some time after Kate suffers a miscarriage. Their trip to a school for girls leads them to meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a precocious Russian girl whose American family perished in a fire, leaving her alone in a strange country. Esther, however, has thrived, and speaks perfect (if slightly accented) English and spends her free time painting. Kate and John are immediately drawn to this unusually bright little girl and soon she is joining the family– at which point some bad things start to happen.
Serra smartly leaves a lot of questions open as the film establishes the family members’ relationships with each other and spends a lot of time with the family as the film ramps up. If anything, he gives this part of the film a too much time– Orphan clocks in at a little over two hours, which is a bit longer than this type of film usually asks of its audience. However, all the setup pays off once Esther launches into her inevitable reign of terror. For a big studio film, Orphan gives Esther some pretty brutal and unsettling action, especially toward the (somewhat anticlimactic) “big reveal.” While the film’s ads insist “You’ll never guess her secret,” most horror fans will probably have guessed it before they walk into the theater.
Still, even if the results and some of the action are familiar, Orphan gives the “killer kid” film a nasty spin. It still pales in comparison to Tom Shankland’s The Children, which as far as I’m concerned is the new Gold Standard for “killer kid” movies, but there’s no question that at the very least Dark Castle has provided another guilty pleasure for horror fans.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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