Orphan

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: The always-helpful Metacritic has Orphan at a not-very-promising 42, and The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps gave the movie a D+, criticizing its grab-bag collection of horror-film clichés and dearth of honest scares. The concept is definitely a groaner: Loving couple takes seemingly perfect little girl into their home. Then chaos reigns. (No talking fox provided.) The Problem Child series covered this ground well enough in the early ’90s, and while the gender-switch opens new possibilities for distasteful exploitation, the poster, with a stone-faced child grimacing out at the world, was a strong implication that wacky hijinks and family togetherness were not to ensue. The only thing worse than a bad horror movie is a bad horror movie without the wit to recognize its own absurdity, and every sign pointed to Orphan being straight-faced, overly long, and painfully tedious.

Also, while no one should automatically dismiss a film because of its production company, Dark Castle Entertainment has a track record that would make the baby Jesus yawn. Of the movies they’ve done that I’ve seen, only the first, the House On Haunted Hill remake with Geoffrey Rush at his absolute Vincent Price-iest, was worth watching. House Of Wax, directed by Orphan helmer Jaume Collet-Serra, had Paris Hilton and an idiotic-but-freaky set design. Th13teen Ghosts was crap. And so on.

Curiosity factor: I have no idea why, but killer-kid movies fascinate me. Village Of The Damned, The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, The Omen, the last 10 minutes of Pet Sematary, arguably Child’s Play, that episode of The X-Files that gave that band nobody remembers its name—not all of these are necessarily good, but I’ve seen them, and I’ll watch more. It isn’t that I find children inherently terrifying—just the opposite, in fact. Kids are just smaller, weaker versions of adults. They need grown-ups to provide for them, get them into R-rated movies, and occasionally buy them beer and cigarettes. The only edge they have in the stalking-and-stabbing field is the surprise factor, but once that’s gone, it’s all short arms and whining. 

Most of the movies I mentioned get around this by giving their murderous tots some kind of supernatural ability, be it mind control or a relationship with the devil or Pazuzu. But not all of them take the easy way out, and on the surface, Orphan seemed to be the rare killer-kid flick that tries to wring all of its suspense out of a threat that could most likely be distracted by a pair of Jonas Brothers tickets. On the surface, anyway.

Look, let’s be honest, Orphan is a lousy piece of work, and while it has some moments of competence, the only real reason to watch it is the big climactic reveal. It’s… It’s pretty astonishing. And yes, I’m totally going to spoil it below, because otherwise, this isn’t going to be much of an article. So you’ve been warned. Without giving anything away, learning the ending is the other reason I wanted to see this, and I was honestly not disappointed.

The viewing experience: Let no one say that Orphan pulls any punches. It opens with the extremely pregnant Kate (Vera Farmiga) and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard), arriving at the hospital. As Kate starts to go into labor, a nice nurse helps her into a wheelchair, and we learn that this is Kate’s third child. And then this happens. WARNING: Extremely icky:

The situation worsens from there. It’s all a nightmare, of course, with lots of exaggerated camera angles, horrifying surgical instruments, and people who ignore Kate’s increasingly panicked cries that something is wrong. (Get used to this last part. It happens a lot.) Kate wakes up at the dream’s worst moment, sweating and terrified, and we’ve gotten our first scare sequence and a small dosage of exposition. It’s lurid, tacky, and way too on-the-nose. If you’re going to bust out the birth-horror, you’ve got to bring more to the table than bleeding and scary lights. You’ve got to earn a scare like this. It’s an opportunity to immediately get us on Kate’s side by putting us in a position to empathize with one of the worst moments of her life, but instead, it becomes a funhouse ride that doesn’t earn its absurdity or its ugliness.

This problem lasts the run of the movie. Orphan veers between goofy-bordering-on-surreal plot points and agonizing family drama, but by refusing to either embrace its exploitative nature or focus on honest character work, it becomes a slog that only occasionally rewards patient viewers with scenes like this: 

I mean, what the hell is that? Why is the camera shaking that way? Is the little girl supposed to be a demon? Is she a mutant with sonic powers? Is Patrick Stewart gonna show up? ’Cause that would be bad-ass. 

But as boring as large chunks of Orphan are, it has oddly interesting suggestions of a better movie underneath the surface. Not good, probably, but at least more interesting. Given the opening, it’s reasonable to assume that Kate is the film’s protagonist. She basically is: Kate is the first to suspect that something’s wrong with her adopted daughter Esther. She does all the investigating, and she’s the lone voice of reason in the wilderness. And yet there are a few moments where it seems like we’re supposed to take Esther’s side, like the scene above; it’s hard to completely hate someone who gets tormented in school, even if they do shout like some kind of overly loud shouting machine. Plus, the film spends a lot of time with Kate and John’s first two kids, their deaf daughter and a son who’s just kind of stupid. This is presumably to show Esther’s toxic effect on the family unit, but it’s handled clumsily, padding 90 minutes of thriller out to two hours. 

The plot is delivered with strange subtlety as well. Through her talks with a therapist (who is, like most therapists in horror movies, terrible), we find that Kate had a drinking problem, most likely connected to the death in childbirth of her third baby. Later in the movie, we also learn that that Kate’s drinking nearly resulted in a tragic accident at the pond outside the family home. These things get mentioned, and become ways for Esther to drive a wedge between Kate and John, but they feel oddly disconnected from the rest of the action. Kate and John begin the film as a happy couple—Esther interrupts them having sex in the kitchen one night, which, scary music and low camera angle aside, really seems more like their fault then hers—and their unraveling marriage feels more like a victim of narrative necessity than anything organic. Even a mention of Sarsgaard’s past affair gets tossed out like it’s something that happens in every marriage, and Farmiga is made to look unbalanced for even bringing it up.

The performances range from perfunctory to melodramatic. I’ve been a fan of Farmiga ever since watching her co-star with Jeffrey Donovan in a short-lived series called Touching Evil, and she’s at least committed here. (It doesn’t hurt that this is her second “evil kid” movie, following 2007’s Joshua.) Sarsgaard, a terrific actor in other, better films, sleepwalks through a role defined by its utter ineffectualness. Movies like this share a frustrating tendency to make the female lead more empowered by giving her a loving, seemingly patient husband who, at heart, is just a sulky man-child waiting to exact passive-aggressive revenge for decades of minor and imagined abuses. John’s willingness to dismiss his wife’s fears seems reasonable on the surface because of the standard “no one believes the truth until it’s too late” horror model. But at heart, it’s a betrayal that we have no motivation for believing. 

Then there’s Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther. One of the downfalls of the killer-kid genre is that it’s difficult to find young actors who can be menacing onscreen; a glower turns into boredom easily, and even if little Damien nails down the right facial expression, a few lines of chirping, over-enunciated dialogue will kill the mood. Fuhrman is good, however. She nails the accent and she gives a good evil face. More importantly, she doesn’t ever betray the film’s increasingly ludicrous premise. She even manages to give it a sheen of legitimacy… and here’s where we get into spoiler territory.

But first, watch this:

Just ugh, right? This kid, maybe 9 years old, gets tarted up for her daddy, and we get the most awkward seduction scene outside my senior prom. It’s like what you always suspect must be going on somewhere after seeing clips of one of those little-girl beauty pageants, with all that glitter and lip gloss, cheekbones thick with rouge, eyelids so heavy with mascara they can barely stay open for the time it takes to twirl a baton and sell adorable, sell sweetheart, sell someday-I-will-be-18. Sarsgaard’s scripted reaction is maddening. While he protests, those drunken rebuffs look half-hearted and confused, as if telling his adopted daughter “No, we aren’t going to make out” is actually difficult. Like that opening dream sequence, it inspires a clumsy-but-undeniable gut reaction; not good, not skillfully provoked, but it makes you feel something, which is more than most of the movie manages to achieve.

Ah, but there’s a twist. And the twist is…

Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet and are willing to put up with an inordinate amount of fake scares (you could do a “scary POV shot that turns out to be absolutely nothing” drinking game here), stop here, read the final paragraph, and go rent the movie. But for the rest of you…

…Esther is not a little girl, but a 33-year-old Russian woman with proportional dwarfism. Who is criminally insane, and has murdered before, including any man who dares reject her just because, um, she looks like she’s 9. Basically, Orphan is what would happen if Kirsten Dunst’s character in Interview With The Vampire had survived, become a film actress, and beat out Rebecca De Mornay for the villain role in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. It’s hilarious, it’s insane, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it nearly makes the 105 minutes leading up to the reveal worth the time.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? I have a fairly high tolerance for terrible horror films, so I’d say this was about 35 percent worthwhile. It loses points for a lot of unneeded padding (look, just playing creepy music and panning over a room isn’t creating mood, it’s giving the production designer a clip reel), and for overplaying the “We don’t trust you because you used to drink!” card. I’m kind of disappointed this didn’t do better at the box office, though. Esther deserved a franchise.

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