Review by Hugh Lilly
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose previous film was the abysmally moronic Paris Hilton vehicle House of Wax, has managed to make a bearable—if paint-by-numbers—horror-thriller in Orphan. Esther, the oddly-dressed, fear-inducing parentless child of the title, is adopted by a respectable Connecticut family. Vera Farmiga, whose previous film Joshua also dealt with unruly offspring, plays the mother, Kate, and Peter Sarsgaard (Elegy; Jarhead) plays John, the father.
Reeling from having recently lost a child in stillbirth, the family adopt Esther from a local orphanage, and welcome her with open arms. The girl, played with an awful Eastern European accent by an American actress, has a murky past and a tendency to be in the vicinity of grisly murders, house fires and the like—although there’s never any evidence linking her to the crimes. Kate becomes suspicious of Esther early on, though, this being a horror film, no one believes her until it’s too late.
The film is constructed well, cliché genre conventions aside, and although Farmiga’s portrayal of the mother is top notch, the same cannot be said of the other actors—especially Sarsgaard, who seems like he’s sleep-walking (sleep-acting?) through nearly every scene. The main plot twist, although excitingly innovative on paper, is handled clumsily, and over-the-top score and sound design telegraph every shocking “jump-out-of-your-seat” moment before they happen.
The “creepy kid” as plot device has long been a staple of the horror-thriller genre, and occasionally, as with the 2007 Spanish film El Orfanato, it is possible to breathe new life into it. Unfortunately, apart from the child’s “insane” charcoal drawings—seemingly obligatory to the “creepy kid” sub-genre—which are given an interesting new dimension, Orphan is stultifying unoriginal.