Bad weekend for the movies: Alongside such disappointing pictures as the embarrassing romantic comedy “The Ugly Truth” and the preposterous Hollywood melodrama” Shrink,” Warner will release its old-fashioned and trashy horror flick, “Orphan,” a movie that shamelessly combines elements from “The Bad seed,” “The Good Son,” and “The Omen,” all of which are based malevolent children tormenting their parents and wreaking havoc on their household.

There is nothing wrong with being old-fashioned if the movie delivers the good, but as scripted by David Leslie Johnson and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan,” is too formulaic and not scary enough to elicit the pleasures we associate with this genre.

The set up (and first reel) are workable, building healthy if predictable suspense and tension by disrupting the seeming order of a bourgeois couple.  After some difficulties in their marriage, based on the loss of an unborn child, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard), who have a son and daughter, decide the best way to heal is to adopt a young girl.

Enter Esther, a smart if mysterious 9-year-old girl, who recently experienced the loss of her previous adoptive family in a house fire from which she barely escaped alive.  When John first encounters Esther, she is singing and painting a naively beautiful picture.  He and Kate are drawn to Esther, spotting her intelligence and singularity. Seemingly sensitive and shy, Esther is clearly a unique girl.  As a neat middle-class professional couple (Kate is a musician, John an architect) they see this exceptional child fitting into their family despite–or because of–her tragic past. However, as soon as they welcome Esther, alarming events begins to unfold, leading Kate to believe that something isn't right with the seemingly angelic and special little girl.

Problem is, the audience is always ahead the parents and also ahead of the game, realizing from her very first entrance that Esther is not as innocent as she seems.  The current, troubled state of the Coleman family is ripe for manipulation by the young girl who exploits Kate, a woman still healing from her loss and also is a recovering alcoholic; her drinking has led to near-tragedy when daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) almost drowned, leaving the latter hearing-impaired. 

For his part, John continues to blame his wife for what might have happened. The various fractures in their relationship make the couple vulnerable, giving Esther plenty of opportunities for mischief and evil.

Fifty years ago, audiences were both shocked and mesmerized with the girl-psychopath (Oscar-nominated Patty McCormack in a truly scary turn) at the center of “The Bad Seed,” and thirty years ago, we went for the ride with the ordeal faced by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick after adopting a child-devil (Damien is the Antichrist) in “The Omen.”  But to make such a schlocky picture in 2009 is both courageous and bizarre, to say the least.

Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed “House of Wax,” a more accomplished picture, returns to the horror genre with a work that's at once overbaked and underbaked.  Infusing his tale with dark humor, Collet-Sera does a craftsman's job as a helmer, using all the tricks in the horror genre book, abrupt sounds, ominous music (composed by John Ottman), and so on.

That said, in the titular role Isabelle Fuhrman acquites herself with a strong performance, affecting a rather convincing Russian accent (Esther is of Russian desecnt) and executing sheer evil with an admirable degree of calm and earnestness.

You can't fault the gifted Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, who actually give creditable performances, for choosing these roles in a studio movie that handsomely compensates them, considering what they make for their more personal and passionate projects.

In addition to the aformentioned pictures, one should add the Sundance indie “Joshua,” which Fox Searchlight released with little success in 2007, in which Vera Farmiga also plays a distressed, hysterical mother of a malevolent 9-year-old biological son, when a new baby is born into the family.

End Note

I am grateful to the reader Roge Hebron who pointed out, after reading my review, that the last chapter of “Orphan” borrows heavily from “Murderer,” a Hong King horror film, which I have not seen.


Kate Coleman – Vera Farmiga
John Coleman – Peter Sarsgaard
Esther – Isabelle Fuhrman
Sister Abigail – CCH Pounder
Daniel Coleman – Jimmy Bennett
Dr. Browning – Margo Martindale
Dr. Varava – Karel Roden
Max Coleman – Aryana Engineer
Grandma Barbara – Rosemary Dunsmore


A Warner  release presented in association with Dark Castle Entertainment of an Appian Way production.

Produced by Joel Silver, Susan Downey, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Executive producers, Steve Richards, Don Carmody, Michael Ireland.

Co-producers, Richard Mirisch, David Barrett, Erik Olsen, Dr. Carl Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.

Screenplay, David Leslie Johnson; story, Alex Mace.
Camera, Jeff Cutter.

Editor, Tim Alverson,

Music, John Ottman.

Production designer, Tom Meyer.

Art directors, Pierre Perrault, Patrick Banister; set designers, Martin Gagne, Viorel Indres, Raymond Larose, Vincent Gingras-Liberali, Amy Bell; set decorators, Daniel Hamelin, Martine Giguere-Kazemirchuk, David Laramy, Cal Louks

Costume designer, Antoinette Messam.

Sound, Patrick Rousseau; supervising sound editor, Frederick Howard; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill.

Visual effects supervisor, Richard Yuricich; visual effects, Lola VFX, Image Engine, Pacific Art & Title.

Stunt coordinator, Brian Jagersky.

Associate producers, Aaron Auch, Ethan Erwin, Stacey Fields, Sarah Meyer.

Assistant directors, Pedro Gandol, Greg Zenon.

Second unit directors, David Barrett, Javier Aguilera; second unit camera, Michele Laliberte.

Casting, Ronnie Yeskel.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 122 Minutes.