While Orphan feels formulaic to the evil kid canon, it is genuinely entertaining in a wicked and twisted sort of way.

From that 70’s horror classic that started it all (The Omen), right up until this year’s Case 39, the ‘evil kid’ plot line has been steadily evolving into a whole new genre. As such, we have seen several times before, how a cute and apparently sweet kid can manipulate and brutally murder all that stands in the way of a pre-conceived, albeit evil plan. Unlike the aforementioned films, what works here is the strength of stellar acting combined with a plot that escalates into a crescendo of suspense.

David Leslie Johnson’s script starts with a horrific prologue where the lovely and very talented Vera Farmiga is heavily pregnant, as Kate Coleman. In the presence of her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard), their third pregnancy ends in a bloody mess, quite literally. Although a vital segment of the plot, I must say the prologue has a very B movie feel to it, made worse with soft focus camera work, confusing the viewer into believing this to be Kate’s nightmare. But apparently it did happen, and almost a year later, Kate is still suffering the loss of what would have been their third child. In filling an ever increasing void, Kate and John decide to adopt Esther, a 9 year old Russian orphan with remarkable charm and intellect for her age. As Esther settles into her new home, her bond with Kate’s deaf-mute daughter is instantaneous, while her step-brother is less cordial and is the first to sense her ominous personality. Before long, Esther turns out to be an odd-ball in school, even as Kate discovers at an alarming rate, that adopting her may have been a bad decision. On the other hand, John disagrees, causing a rift between the couple and opening old wounds. Just as the situation starts to boil over, Kate uncovers Esther’s deep dark secret and must do all she can to protect the lives of her family.

After slipping under the radar, past his directional debut remaking House of Wax (a 2005 misfire featuring Paris Hilton), Jaume Collet-Serra re-emerges here darker and stronger in only his third film and second attempt at the horror/thriller genre. From a directional standpoint, Collet-Serra delivers a neatly done package, complete with tight acting, solid buildup of suspense through great pacing, and a perfectly timed twist most viewers won’t see coming. His pacing of the plot allows enough time for considerable character development. Essentially, this is what draws us into the lives of Kate and John and their little family, up until they adopt Esther. After this point, the pace increases with a lot of focus (or obscurity) into the mystery behind Esther and her motives. Not but until the end, when the twist emerges, are we left guessing Esther’s true motives and origins: evil incarnate or just a child deprived of affection. Either or neither, the answer is astounding, and Johnson’s concept is fresh, despite our temptation to compare Esther with Macaulay Culkin’s sinister Henry Evans, in The Good Son. Collet-Serra also dares to go where other directors tread lightly, especially since the very nature of this film is taboo when considering the storm it has stirred amongst parents with adopted children. Then there is the controversy of what a child actor can and cannot do or say in front of a camera. Again, this is what differentiates Orphan from similar films, because the direction here is bold, structured and clever, and pushes all boundaries. Of all the positives I can think of, the list topper will definitely have to be the exceptional performances from Farmiga and little known Isabelle Fuhrman as the antagonist. I will let you be the judge when I say that Fuhrman steals the show from the moment you see her and carries that uncanny charisma all through to the end. Step aside Dakota Fanning; make way for Isabelle Fuhrman as a force to reckon with. Aside from these two, Sarsgaard puts in his usual sleepy-eyed performance but is shadowed by Aryana Engineer as the couple’s deaf-mute daughter; good input from another child actor.

All said and done, the near perfect script is not without some blaring clichés and unnecessary tributes. As with most recent thrillers, you can expect some jumpy moments, predictable one-liners and that chilly atmosphere snowy cinematography brings to horror thrillers. Co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, look out for a scene here in tribute to his final scene in Titanic. While most viewers may find this movie original enough to be conceptually shocking, there will be those who may find it a tad bit contrived. Even so, this is a movie about children, and for the most part, acted out by children. But given the MPAA rating of R, this one is strictly adults only.

Rating: ★★★½☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.