Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thoroughly disappointing variation on “The Bad Seed,” “Orphan” will find a loyal audience in viewers who revel in murderous children and creepy psychosexual games. Despite a late twist that provides the movie with a concussive blast, “Orphan” collapses under the weight of its bloated, unnecessary running time and its lack of imagination. Playing on nonsensical cultural fears related to adoption, “Orphan” cooks up all kinds of unpleasantness and mayhem involving preteens, perpetuating the mythology of a class of cinematic cherubs ready to manipulate adults and unleash hell when no one is looking.

Attractively photographed in Quebec, “Orphan” mostly takes place in and around a gorgeous modern domicile that would be right at home on the pages of “Dwell.” Wealthy John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga), already parents to a pair of sweet-faced kids, remain devastated by the stillbirth of a daughter. They adopt 9-year-old Esther (the effectively unsettling Isabelle Fuhrman), a poised Russian with a bizarre penchant for old-fashioned dresses and velvety neck ribbons. Despite the wariness of adorable, hearing-impaired Max (Aryana Engineer) and brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), the clueless adults fail to recognize warning signs until it is too late.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also helmed “Goal II: Living the Dream,” has not improved much as a horror filmmaker since his 2005 remake of “House of Wax.” Resorting again and again to cheap shocks underscored with loud musical stingers and bursts (just to make sure everyone jumps out of their chairs), the director never bothers to attempt building suspense when nerve-wracking sensual assault will do. One can only imagine what a storyteller like Alfred Hitchcock might have accomplished with the wild material, but it would certainly contain more wit, intelligence, and respect for its audience than Collet-Serra can offer.

Working from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson and a story by Alex Mace, the director is not shy about depicting very young people in perilous mental and physical situations. The film’s target demographic is not likely comprised of parents, but compassionate viewers will flinch at many of the disturbing, emotionally scarring horrors to which the very young characters are subjected. The criticism is especially vexing in the case Max, who witnesses the majority of the traumatizing atrocities committed by her new sister against classmates, acquaintances, and family members. Broken bones, death by hammer, tree house arson, handgun violence, stabbing by knife, and icy drowning are all on the movie’s unappetizing menu.

By the end of the feature, “Orphan” has provided a clinic in lumbering horror flick clichés. The final sections of the movie, down to the Killer Who Will Not Die, practically pulsate with unrelenting trashiness, from a ghoulish seduction scene to a black-lit gallery of fluorescent erotica, which makes one wonder where Esther received her graphic arts training. All three of the child performers turn in solid work despite the shaky source material. Farmiga and Sarsgaard also bring a level of talent to what would under most circumstances be an embarrassing low-budget quickie – a good description of most of the Dark Castle Entertainment filmography.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/27/09.

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