Orphan is a horror film much like Mr. Brooks in its quality and residual presence in the viewer’s mind once they have seen it. Like the tag line the film feverishly hints at, Russian orphan Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) has a secret. I guessed the secret before ever sitting down to see the film but how that secret is brought about in the film will keep most interested throughout its runtime. Even if you guess the secret before hand like I did, Orphan is still a solid horror film. What makes it so is the dialog, the script, and the acting by the main cast. Unlike pathetic Friday the 13th (2009), Orphan is a horror movie with good dialog, ascending to great at times (usually within the confines of confrontation).
The chemistry of the two parental leads, Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard), carry the film during its non-horror segments. Their life is not perfect nor are their martial difficulties mere artifice. An impromptu love making session in the kitchen is passionate one minute, a loving moment in comedy between the two of them the next. Its moments like these that make Orphan more than your garden-variety horror flick.
One of the best aspects of Orphan’s script was the inclusion of the Coleman’s almost completely deft daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), who uses hearing aids and is a lip reader. Because of her presence, there are key and touching moments in the film involving her developed abilities. The touching moments are between Max and her parental units where the sound in the film cuts out and all there is are the subtitles of their conversation on screen. This was totally unexpected as nothing in the film’s promotional materials even hinted at it. It is about time. It has almost become a tradition of late for movie studios to give away every key plot point in a film before audiences every walk into the theater to view the film. For once (recently), it was nice to be pleasantly surprised and for that surprise to be used in a way to make the film better instead of garnish for the cinematic entrée. The key moments are during sequences of escalating tension; making them minutely unique as very few horror films or dramatic films for that matter, utilize the sign medium. It was very entertaining seeing Max intervene and slowly progressing from passive to a more active participant in the film. She becomes one of the people the viewer may come to root for, even during games of roulette. “Want to play?” “Maybe later.”
Fuhrman really gives a good performance as Esther. I doubt Dakota Fanning or Anna Paquin, when they were her age, could have done much better. When the scene calls for Esther to be intense or intimidating, Fuhrman is and then some. There as subtle things she does with her eyes also, expressions that cross her face but are never spoken out loud, that could not have been written in the script for her to do and must have been adlibbed. If they were, screenwriter David Leslie Johnson should be given even more credit. Either way, with that very slight Russian accent she speaks with and what she brings to this film, she may have a resplendent acting career in front of her.
Regarding what else is brought to the screen in Orphan, surely one of its more “interesting” moments was the Lolita-esque scene. It was increasing uncomfortable to watch and was a perfect fit for a horror film as axe decapitations are as Bruno would say: “so 1980’s”. The aforementioned scene reminded me of the “very uncomfortable for men scene” in Hard Candy though this scene does not sustain its squirm factor as well as latter. To the scene’s credit, the most reprehensible conclusion actually seems a possibility because John is intoxicated (I thought Esther had drugged him) and bad things happen when people are in this state. Also, the scene is partially shot through John’s drunken, skewed perspective so the viewer knows the protagonist is not seeing clearly and by implication, thinking clearly either.
Certain shots and sequences in Orphan have higher production value and cinematography than are regularly found in horror films. Two examples stand out: One is the Coleman’s home at night as lighting flashes and the other is during the finally confrontation at a frozen lake at night. Great camera placement and set up both times, especially during the latter.
Orphan is in no way a perfect horror film and does fall victim to certain horror trappings. One of them being: before the protagonist takes final physical action against the antagonist, that person says a one–liner. Why not have that person say it during the action, after it or not at all. It did not make the scene in Orphan better at all. It reminded me of that scene at the end of Species: “Let him go” then a grenade launcher to the head of Sil. There is also a moment of screeching stupidity on the part of one of the protagonists, John’s mother, Grandma Barbara (Rosemary Dunsmore), in a hospital. Eight-year-old (another guess) Max asks to go to the bathroom and John’s mom lets her go, alone, walking the halls of the hospital by herself. No guardian would ever allow that. What if Max got snatched and disappeared? What if she fell somewhere and hurt herself? An unfortunate plot inclusion.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan is a horror film that has far stronger acting and dramatic moments than are usually found in horror films. In that lone respect, Orphan and The Host have common ground. I want to say that Orphan is characters first, horror second but that is not quite the case as its horror/slasher aspects take precedence seven out of tens times. Instead of showing Esther committing some “incidents” outright from the beginning, the Jaws approach may have been better and kept the audience off balance, guessing, for a longer period of time.