Wait for the Surprise

'Orphan' seems like just another tired demon-child movie—but the ending shocks and redeems

All signs pointed to a bad time when it came to Orphan.

The film is the billionth "demon-child" movie to get the green light, and it actually includes Vera Farmiga as the troubled mother who must deal with the evil kid. Farmiga was in Joshua, a 2007 demon-child film that co-starred Sam Rockwell. Déjà vu.

The movie employs every tired horror-film cliché, many of them within the first 15 minutes. The surprise dream sequence starts things on an unreliable note, and then we get the old "refrigerator door is going to close and reveal somebody behind it" trick—not to mention the well-worn "bathroom mirror cabinet door is going to close and reveal somebody behind you in the reflection" gag.

I was beginning to think director Jaume Collet-Serra was the very worst type of unoriginal hack. After all, he did do the terrible House of Wax remake.

All of the tired clichés wore down my expectations—resulting in a major moment of surprise in the film's final act. It doesn't make the film a classic by any means, but it does turn the proceedings into a semi-respectable horror film. It's a big, sometimes darkly funny fake-out that works.

Much of the film's relative success is due to young actress Isabelle Fuhrman, who is genuinely creepy as Esther, the orphan touted in the film's title. When Kate and John Coleman (Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) show up at an orphanage, Esther immediately stands out. Her paintings are "remarkable"; she dresses elegantly with fancy ribbons; and she talks like an inordinately intelligent child. She seems to be the perfect fit, and they take her home.

Almost immediately, people start dying and breaking limbs.

The movie has all the family-horror staples. The tree house where the Colemans' son (Jimmy Bennett) takes refuge and hides his porn is a place where he will surely face harm. The handicapped sibling (Aryana Engineer) is almost totally deaf and will be a major pawn in Esther's play. And, of course, the father doesn't believe Esther is bad and eventually turns against his wife.

All of this is just a setup.

I thought I was watching a useless genre retread, but instead, I was seeing a rather nifty thriller-mystery. Sure, it's got a slasher element to it. Esther has much in common with Child's Play's Chucky, including a penchant for cutlery. The finale does feature one too many fake endings, and the scary music cues are a bit much. Also, a major plot point has Esther's new brother and sister refusing to tell their parents bad things, because she threatens them. Yeah, right: Kids tell on their siblings, no matter what body parts an adopted sister is threatening to remove.

Still, I have to forgive all of that stuff, because I was fooled, and I really like it when a movie can trick me. It's the sort of trick that makes you rethink the whole film, and things start making sense.

I'm wondering if Fuhrman's career will be able to continue without her presence giving moviegoers the heebie-jeebies. The kid has got the scary goods, and Esther is a role that will stick with her for a while. She might have to take a couple of years off and voice animated characters, as child actors often do, until the memory of this monster fades a bit. If she were to star alongside other kids in a live-action film, I would always suspect her of being moments away from smashing somebody with a hammer.

So, yes, Orphan is yet another demon-child movie, but you can file it with the good ones like The Bad Seed, the original The Omen and Joshua. You can also file it with the likes of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, because it's got an ending that will shock you silly.

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