In most cases, a movie’s first scene sets the ground rules for what’s to come. Sadly, Orphan is no exception. Following Peter Sarsgaard and a heavily pregnant Vera Farmiga through a nightmarish trip to the hospital, it features the image of Farmiga leaving a Peckinpah-worthy trail of blood from waiting room to delivery room. That’s followed by appearances from ghoulish doctors, a stillborn corpse, and other delights. It is a nightmare, as it turns out—spurred by Farmiga’s character’s recent miscarriage—but its jolt-a-second gotcha imagery and cranked-to-11 sound design don’t much differ from the real world of the film that follows.
If director Jaume Collet-Serra (House Of Wax) set out to make a parody of horror-film clichés, he succeeded brilliantly. Orphan is set largely in Sarsgaard and Farmiga’s home, an ultra-modern facility that’s nonetheless filled with dark corners, creaky fixtures, and bathroom mirrors seemingly designed to facilitate stealthy sneak-ups. (If only they could hear the swelling music cues!) Stoking the engine of the scare-machine: Sarsgaard and Farmiga’s decision to adopt a child. That’d be a fine idea if they didn’t end up with a kid from the Charles Addams wing of the local orphanage, a dark-haired girl (Isabelle Fuhrman) sporting antique clothing, an Eastern European accent, and a demeanor so sweet, she has to have an ulterior motive. (Non-spoiler: She totally does.)
When Orphan puts the brake on the cheap thrills, it creates some tension by letting Fuhrman’s superficially innocent behavior widen the fissures in Sarsgaard and Farmiga’s marriage and watching as she plays power games with her adopted siblings. But ultimately, the film is about one thing: a creepy kid committing acts of violence. Well, it’s about a little more than that; the plot throws in some late-film developments that somehow make it more distasteful than the usual Bad Seed-inspired kids-who-kill movie. But there’s scarcely time to think about them between all the clatter and screams, none of which translate into honest scares.