Orphan -- Film Review

The very bad seed in "Orphan," a Dark Castle offering awash in red stuff and implausibility, is a 9-year-old girl with chronic homicidal urges and a Russian accent. A pretty interesting movie about the crack-up of an American family lies right under the filmmakers' noses, but in their rush to deliver shock and gore they miss every opportunity to make a smart movie.

Nonetheless, dumb horror is the stuff of summer moviegoing, so "Orphan" should open well for Warner Bros. Its preopening saturation campaign could generate even more returns.

It is of more than passing interest that the film's third-act plot twist mirrors that of a just-opened Hong Kong film, "Murderer." Apparently, when horror filmmakers search for new gimmicks to package with old tricks, desperate minds think alike.

A young orphan with nothing more than chaos and murder on her mind couldn't pick a better family to adopt her than the Colemans. Kate (the considerably talented Vera Farmiga) is a reformed drunk no one trusts who is responsible for the deafness of her young daughter (Aryana Engineer, who is hearing-impaired).

Husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) has a roving eye where women are concerned and blindness to the point of folly when it comes to recognizing that a demon is in their midst. The family shrink couldn't diagnose an Oedipus complex in Oedipus. The son (Jimmy Bennett) might share his mother's growing unease over his new sister but is too much of a weasel to do anything but sulk.

The predictable incidents that ensue might have been made intriguing had writer David Leslie Johnson (working from a story by Alex Mace) played better with notions of guilt and blame, which are exploited only to keep the obtuse husband in the dark. A little ambiguity might have done wonders.

"I guess I'm different," warns Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) when she meets her potential adoptive family. Esther apparently was born in Russia, lost her first adoptive American family to a mysterious fire only she survived, her records in the old country can't be found and bad things happen whenever she is around. But none of this is different enough for a family with an unexamined desperation for adoption following the tragic stillbirth of their third child.

For Farmiga, this is a meaty role, but it's odd to see her essentially repeat the story line of her 2007 film "Joshua," in which a 9-year-old son drove her to hysteria. For Sarsgaard, you can only hope this film raises his quote because there is no other reason to tackle such an unforgivingly dull and obtuse character.

Furhman plays pure evil with such supreme calmness that only her eyes shine with madness. Indeed, all of the child actors are superb, especially the expressive Engineer.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra ("House of Wax") displays a basic mistrust in the material by filling scenes with abrupt noises, visual shocks and sharp music cues even before Esther arrives. The production has enough of a professional sheen -- the film uses the frigid cold of its Eastern Canadian locations to good advantage -- to hold audience attention until the bloody de rigueur showdown between Esther and the overwhelmed family.

Opens: Friday, July 24 (Warner Bros.)
Running time: 122 mins.
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