Orphan

Movie Information

The Story: A couple unwisely brings a creepy Russian orphan into their home. Mayhem follows. The Lowdown: Tacky, tasteless and finally preposterous horror that moves so slowly the film seems to be running backwards.
Score:

Genre: Creepy Child Horror
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, CCH Pounder, Isabelle Furhman, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale
Rated: R

Toward the end of the 1930 Marx Brothers picture Animal Crackers, Groucho and Chico are trying to discover what became of a stolen painting—a sequence that climaxes with Chico reasoning that the painting in question hasn’t actually been stolen, but that “left-handed moths ate the picture.” I cite this because it seems like a model of pure reason when put up against the laugh-out-loud solution to the events of Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, the latest in a long line of movies about creepy, evil, even homicidal children.

Among the film’s many mistakes is its quaint insistence on a “rational” ending. Such endings were all the rage in the 1920s, when it was felt that audiences would accept even the most preposterous tosh of an explanation so long as it wasn’t supernatural. In the case of the insanely overlong (123 minutes) and impossibly tedious Orphan, the silliness does provide the movie with a degree of entertainment value—however unintended—that it otherwise almost completely lacks. Ah, well, as the poster says, “There’s something wrong with Esther.” There certainly is—she’s trapped in this terminally dull and dimwitted movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know this is one of those stories that works on the basis that adoption is a risky business. In this case, the film throws in a little xenophobia by giving the adopted Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, Hounddog) a foreign background complete with a Natasha Badinov accent. The message is clear: Self-possessed Eastern European orphans with a penchant for singing Billy Hill’s “Glory of Love” are not to be trusted. (What is it with psychopaths and musical fixations?) This could be valuable knowledge, though I doubt its practical application for most people.

Life lessons do not end there. I suspect there is some degree of profundity to be mined from the fact that adopting-mom Kate (Vera Farmiga) is a recovering alcoholic who is grieving over a child that was born dead, feeling guilty because she was in a drunken stupor that allowed the near drowning of deaf daughter Max (newcomer Aryana Engineer), and nursing a grudge against husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) over a tryst he had with another woman 10 years ago. I, however, am just too worn out from assessing this aggregation of angst to think about what it all means.

The bulk of the molasses-impeded movie is given over to the revelation that Esther is the exact kind of bad news one might expect from a little girl whose last adoption stint ended with the house mysteriously burning to the ground. There are three little signs that Esther is not who she seems: She won’t let mom see her naked; she won’t go to the dentist; and she won’t allow anyone to remove the ribbons she wears on her neck and wrists. My guess is that you’ve already figured out two-thirds of the supposedly shocking answer.

Of course, we know that Esther is the bad-seed incarnate, because viewers of the film get to see things the parents don’t—and we’ve seen the trailer. Kate is suspicious, but John is oblivious to such a spectacular degree that he could only exist within the confines of a cheesy horror picture. His obtuseness is endorsed by Kate’s shrink (Margo Martindale, Hannah Montana: The Movie), whose office appears to be located just outside a meatpacking plant. (Through the office windows we can see guys carrying sides of beef, which hardly seems conducive to therapy.)

I will concede that the climactic section of the movie manages to be silly, tasteless and utterly predictable all at the same time. That may be viewed as some kind of accomplishment, if one is in a charitable frame of mind. But somehow it’s neither as sincere nor as satisfying as the moment in the director’s previous horror picture, House of Wax (2005), where Paris Hilton got a pole through her head. Maybe if Hilton had played Esther? Rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

30 thoughts on “Orphan

  1. Dread P. Roberts

    There are three little signs that Esther is not who she seems: She won’t let mom see her naked; she won’t go to the dentist; and she won’t allow anyone to remove the ribbons she wears on her neck and wrists.

    Gasp…she’s a self-mutilating, blood sucking vampire, isn’t she!? I guess they let the wrong one in.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Gasp…she’s a self-mutilating, blood sucking vampire, isn’t she!? I guess they let the wrong one in.

    I think I’d have bought that more readily than what the movie offers. Hell, I’d have more readily bought that her head would fall off if the ribbon was removed than what the movie offers.

  3. Brent Jackson

    The reason I don’t go to the movies much anymore is that most of them are well…stupid. This vampire fad is not very entertaining. I like comedies, the old ones best. The Three Stooges never fail to make me laugh. “Ahhh wise guy eh? Yuk yuk yuk yuk!” I’ve watched “Caddy Shack” 20 times at least and still laugh. Well cast. Love Rodney. “Golf courses are the biggest waste of prime real estate. If I have a chance I’ll put up condos all over this course.” Bill Murray ” I was a pro-jock for the Dalai Lama once. After the match he stiffed me. So I says ‘hey Lama, where’s the, you know, something for my effort?’ ‘There will be not money. But when you die you will receive full consciousness.’ So I got that going for me too!”

    I like silly slapstick. “Dumb and Dumber”. Larry The Cable Guy “Health Inspector”. That man is funny I don’t care who you are. Get’R done!

    I’d rather laugh any old day than sit through a dark goth vampire movie. But that’s just me.

    Thanks Ken for warning us about the bad ones.

  4. Ken Hanke

    The reason I don’t go to the movies much anymore is that most of them are well…stupid. This vampire fad is not very entertaining

    Well, whatever this is, it isn’t a vampire picture.

    Thanks Ken for warning us about the bad ones.

    You’re welcome — even though this all sounds vaguely familiar — but I’d warn you against Dumb and Dumber and Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. Actually, I did warn against the latter.

  5. pvc

    I’d warn you against Dumb and Dumber

    Maybe it’s just that I’m too young, or maybe it’s just that you’re too old, but I love Dumb and Dumber. Yes, it’s cheap throw-away “stupid” comedy, but I still laugh out loud when I watch it with my friends. I hate Larry the Cable Guy with a passion, though.

    About the movie in question:
    I’ve read some other reviews that mention some truly offensive moments, involving homicidal preteens and pseudo-pedophilia. I love being offended by movies, so I’m definitely gonna see this one. Although it will most likely suck pretty hard.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Maybe it’s just that I’m too young, or maybe it’s just that you’re too old, but I love Dumb and Dumber.

    I doubt age enters into it very much. The original poster — in his 48th incarnation — is older than I am.

    I’ve read some other reviews that mention some truly offensive moments, involving homicidal preteens and pseudo-pedophilia

    There’s more pseudo than the pedophilia. I don’t know if those aspects will offend you, but the film will almost certainly offend your intelligence.

  7. Dread P. Roberts

    This vampire fad is not very entertaining…
    …I’d rather laugh any old day than sit through a dark goth vampire movie.

    Yeah, ironically enough, I was just being sarcastic as a means of playing off of the whole vampire fad thing as of late. Sorry about the confusion. I guess that’s the problem with typing sarcastically, as opposed to talking sarcastically; things like tone of voice and other aspects of personal interaction get left out, and therefore, can cause some confusion. This probably happens to me all the time without me even knowing.

    I love being offended by movies, so I’m definitely gonna see this one.

    This seems rather interesting to me. I can certainly understand gaining a level of amusement out of watching other people squirm uncomfortably while being offended, but it seems a little more unusual for one to personally enjoy being actually offended. I DO enjoy when a movie forces me to stop and think about things in a different way, or from a different perspective, that might even threaten my own accustomed ideology. It’s always nice to have ones mind opened. But that’s different from being truly offended.

    I don’t know if those aspects will offend you, but the film will almost certainly offend your intelligence.

    I’m really not sure that any movie could ever truly offend me, and my intelligence, at the same time. If a movie is just stupid, them I’m not going to take it seriously enough to be offended. For example: In The Company of Men offends me and makes me uncomfortable (not to mention depressed), but that’s only because it was an intelligent enough movie to grab my attention in the first place. Plus, it leaves me with the unwanted realization that what I’m seeing is based on a level of truth that is out there lurking in the shadows of an undesirable real world. That just doesn’t happen with a stupid movie.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Yeah, ironically enough, I was just being sarcastic as a means of playing off of the whole vampire fad thing as of late. Sorry about the confusion.

    Don’t worry. The confusion was manufactured by this latest incarnation of Cullen A. — aka: Nam Vet, William P. Miller, etc., etc. — of which there have been at least four such in the past week or so. (Try mentioning John Waters and see what happens if he’s still around.)

    I’m really not sure that any movie could ever truly offend me, and my intelligence, at the same time.

    An interesting point. I’d agree with it in most cases, but then you hit a movie like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and it becomes something else again. That I would definitely call stupid and offensive.

  9. Most people on horror boards are saying that this film is actually cheesy fun, an unintentional DRAG ME TO HELL perhaps. Might be worth a matinee.

  10. Ken Hanke

    an unintentional DRAG ME TO HELL perhaps

    It may be cheesy, but I can think of few things it’s less like than Drag Me to Hell.

  11. Sean Williams

    The original poster—in his 48th incarnation—is older than I am.

    Forty-eight? That’s nothing. I tell you, on the StarWars.com Forums, we have this guy who’s gone through almost nine hundred successive accounts and has yet to discover the benefits of a proxy server.

    I guess they let the wrong one in.

    On a semiunrelated note, I finally saw Let the Right One In, and although I’m not the horror connoisseur that Mr. Hanke is, I actually liked it better than he did. I can think of a few 2008 films that were more technically accomplished, but none except Slumdog Millionaire that I found more enjoyable and moving (which probably says more about my personality than it says about the quality of the movie).

  12. Ken Hanke

    The original poster—in his 48th incarnation—is older than I am.

    Pulled out of its place in the thread, this appears to refer to Dread P. Roberts, which is certainly not the case.

    I tell you, on the StarWars.com Forums, we have this guy who’s gone through almost nine hundred successive accounts and has yet to discover the benefits of a proxy server.

    Y’know, you’ve left yourself wide open for a Star Wars crack? I’ll let it pass.

    probably says more about my personality than it says about the quality of the movie

    That’s usually the case with most of our tastes, don’t you think?

  13. Dread P. Roberts

    On a semiunrelated note, I finally saw Let the Right One In, and although I’m not the horror connoisseur that Mr. Hanke is, I actually liked it better than he did.

    It is indeed a very well made film for it’s respective genre. I love how it manages to blend both drama and horror in a beautifully seamless manner. For me, the down-to-earth, humanistic feel of the inherent drama, really compliments the more fantastical horror elements, in a way that makes the proceedings feel more realistic than most vampire movies (excluding the very brief, but cheesy cat scene, which, to me, felt like it belonged in a Sam Raimi horror pic).

    Sean, not that it really matters at all, but just out of curiosity, how do know that you liked Let the Right One In more than Ken? He had given it five stars, and the review appeared to be gushing over the movie.

  14. Ken Hanke

    For me, the down-to-earth, humanistic feel of the inherent drama, really compliments the more fantastical horror elements, in a way that makes the proceedings feel more realistic than most vampire movies (excluding the very brief, but cheesy cat scene, which, to me, felt like it belonged in a Sam Raimi horror pic).

    I think I cut slack for the cat scene because it doesn’t smack of CGI. I otherwise pretty much agree with you, but would add that a major component of what works for me is the deeply interfused sadness of the inevitable fate of the boy that undercuts the strange sweetness of the ending.

    Sean, not that it really matters at all, but just out of curiosity, how do know that you liked Let the Right One In more than Ken?

    My guess is that it’s based on the position it holds in my 10 Best list, but Sean may have a more detailed answer.

  15. My guess is that it’s based on the position it holds in my 10 Best list, but Sean may have a more detailed answer.

    I’ve been trying to NOT over-hype it to our customers, but this film might be number one of the decade for me.

  16. Sean Williams

    Y’know, you’ve left yourself wide open for a Star Wars crack?

    Oh, I’m fully aware of that fact, but I like to leave myself vulnerable to mockery.

    That’s usually the case with most of our tastes, don’t you think?

    Probably. I realized that my other favorite fantasy film of the 2000s, Pan’s Labyrinth also involves an adorable twelve-year-old brunette in mortal peril. I’m not sure I want to know what that says about me!

    And yes, I remember that I’ve expressed ambivalent feelings about del Toro in the past, but I do love him as a cinematic stylist. It’s just that although Pan’s Labyrinth is, in my opinion, an absolute masterpiece and is one of my five favorite films of all time, most of del Toro’s other films feel kind of…lopsided. They leave me feeling like I would have liked to enjoy them more than I actually did. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to Drood, At the Mountains of Madness, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Frankenstein (thank you, Wikipedia).

    My guess is that it’s based on the position it holds in my 10 Best list, but Sean may have a more detailed answer.

    Exactly — for me, it’s in the number two slot, right after Slumdog. Although I know that you disagree with that placement, I’m sure you can at least appreciate it.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Probably. I realized that my other favorite fantasy film of the 2000s, Pan’s Labyrinth also involves an adorable twelve-year-old brunette in mortal peril. I’m not sure I want to know what that says about me

    Depends on who you’re identifying with here, I think.

    They leave me feeling like I would have liked to enjoy them more than I actually did.

    My own take is that the Hellboy movies feel a bit like frittered away talent.

    Although I know that you disagree with that placement, I’m sure you can at least appreciate it.

    To the first, well, obviously I disagree or I would have placed it there. To the second, I not only appreciate it, I have no actual problem with it.

  18. Sean Williams

    My own take is that the Hellboy movies feel a bit like frittered away talent.

    As I’ve remarked before, del Toro’s original films are more like Hellboy than his Hellboy films.

    I not only appreciate it, I have no actual problem with it.

    Thank you. But would you have a problem if I admitted that Moulin Rouge! is one of my five favorite films of all time? (Most people seem to love it or hate it.)

  19. Ken Hanke

    But would you have a problem if I admitted that Moulin Rouge! is one of my five favorite films of all time?

    Yeah. I want to know why it’s not in your top four. It’s in mine.

  20. Dread P. Roberts

    I once highly recommended Moulin Rouge! to a fellow coworker, after he expressed with ecstatic enthusiasm, how much he enjoyed Across The Universe. I told him that even though Across The Universe was a great movie, I actually liked Moulin Rouge! a lot more. After he proceeded to watch the movie, he informed me on the following day that he truly, fervently hated Moulin Rouge!, and that he had just lost a considerable amount of respect for my taste in movies. I was (and still am) utterly befuddled by this, but it just goes to show that you never know with people.

  21. Ken Hanke

    I once highly recommended Moulin Rouge! to a fellow coworker, after he expressed with ecstatic enthusiasm, how much he enjoyed Across The Universe.

    Stylistically, these movies are pretty dissimilar.

    After he proceeded to watch the movie, he informed me on the following day that he truly, fervently hated Moulin Rouge!, and that he had just lost a considerable amount of respect for my taste in movies.

    Seems a little excessive to me, but… Oddly, one of the first encounters I ever had with a reader after I started with the Xpress was with a fellow who told me that he rarely agreed with me about anything, but he wanted to thank me for recommending Moulin Rouge! and getting him to see it on the big screen, noting that “when people see this on TV, they’ll kick themselves for not seeing it in a theater.” So, yes, you’re quite right about how you never know.

  22. Dread P. Roberts

    Stylistically, these movies are pretty dissimilar.

    Yes, but the fact that they are both rather uniquely stylized by their own respecting directors is part of what I think sort of gives them a similarity in what type of audience these movies might appeal to. Plus, not only are they both highly stylized, but they are also both romanticized musicals that put a twist on pop culture songs throughout. And they each emphasize a lead character entering into, and experiencing, a new world, if you will, that ultimately results in discovering the joys and agonies of love. To me, both movies share a feeling of a passion for life.

    But I will also admit, that my aforementioned reasons for my initial comparison and recommendation were obviously not as relevant as I had first thought. Clearly I should be more careful with future comparisons.

    Seems a little excessive to me

    Oh, it is indeed. He seemed to be downright angry with me. I’ve never had a movie recommendation backfire like that before.

  23. Sean Williams

    Yeah. I want to know why it’s not in your top four. It’s in mine.

    Cool — another reason to love your column!

    So, yes, you’re quite right about how you never know.

    Well, I recently rented Moulin Rouge! to watch with family, and my mother decided within five minutes that it was a waste of her time.

    Yet, to her credit, she finished it and revised her opinion. She also rented Australia, and Baz Luhrmann is now one of her favorite directors.

    She still hasn’t forgiven me for the time I introduced her to Mulholland Drive, however….

  24. Ken Hanke

    To me, both movies share a feeling of a passion for life.

    Oh, I’m in your corner here, but the tone and approach is very different. The editing in Moulin Rouge! for example is much more aggressive and the music is more diverse, too. Re-thinking 1899 in terms of the “Summer of Love” is a pretty big leap, especially contrasted with a film that presents it (or the approximate era) more normally (for want of a better term). I’ve had people tell me they find nightmarish — and maybe in terms of its complete stylization, I can understand that view, even while not sharing it.

    Oh, it is indeed. He seemed to be downright angry with me. I’ve never had a movie recommendation backfire like that before

    People often take these things too seriously.

  25. Ken Hanke

    Yet, to her credit, she finished it and revised her opinion. She also rented Australia, and Baz Luhrmann is now one of her favorite directors.

    A story with a happier ending than Mr. Roberts’ tale.

    She still hasn’t forgiven me for the time I introduced her to Mulholland Drive, however…

    I strongly advise against showing her Inland Empire then. Strongly.

  26. Sean Williams

    I strongly advise against showing her Inland Empire then. Strongly.

    This warning is having a reverse-psychological effect on me.

  27. Ken Hanke

    This warning is having a reverse-psychological effect on me.

    Had I thought about it, I would have realized this would be the case.

  28. Adam Renkovish

    MOULIN ROUGE was amazing in the theatre. I wish they’d bring it back for another theatrical run in the future. I need to watch it again. I need a musical after watching NAKED LUNCH this afternoon. That movie is so well-done. I love it, and I have absolutely no idea why I do.

    But, yeah. MOULIN ROUGE was a masterpiece. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was just as good. I like Julie Taymor’s style. I thought that her version of TITUS was unlike anything that I had ever seen before.

  29. Ken Hanke

    I need a musical after watching NAKED LUNCH this afternoon. That movie is so well-done. I love it, and I have absolutely no idea why I do.

    Well, I think it’s the best movie ever made about the process of writing, but whether that has anything to do with it, I can’t say.

    I thought that her version of TITUS was unlike anything that I had ever seen before.

    Amazing, isn’t it?

  30. Sean Williams

    Another tangent: it really cheeses me when people criticize Across the Universe by saying it’s not a perfect movie. I mean, is that a realistic criterion for greatness?

    Across the Universe has some pretty substantial flaws. Even its most ardent apologists acknowledge that fact. But — for me, at least — its good parts are so incredibly good that they overshadow its flaws.

    Well, I think it’s the best movie ever made about the process of writing, but whether that has anything to do with it, I can’t say.

    I once had a literature teacher whose theory was that all great art is about the process of creating art.

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