Saturday, July 25, 2009


Director Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by David Johnson
Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, and Isabelle Furhman

The best horror films might make you jump out of your seat but they are able to do so because they play into very real primitive fears. Jaws addressed a fear that many people have about the ocean. The original Nightmare on Elm Street gave audiences nightmares by putting the worse of them on screen. Halloween was a slasher film but was scary because we can all relate to that fear of a home invasion, same with the original Alien. Orphan is about what happens when you let somebody into your home and make yourself emotionally vulnerable to them only to have them try to hurt you and kill you.

The film is about John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) who adopt a young girl named Esther ( Isabelle Fuhrman) into their family which already includes Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and Max (Aryana Engineer). The family has already suffered a tragedy when Kate went through a traumatic miscarriage and nearly avoided another tragedy when Max fell into a frozen pond. Kate was too drunk to realize that her youngest daughter was drowning and Max was saved by John. After that Kate gave up drinking. The film never comes out and says that Kate started drinking because of the miscarriage but it is implied. When the film opens the family is still healing, Kate and John have trouble with intimacy, but they feel like they are ready to adopt. They meet Esther and instantly connect with her and decide to take her home.

One of the strongest elements of this film is the fact that if you stripped away all the horror elements it could also play as a family drama. There is great care put into creation of the characters both on the side of the actors and the filmmakers. When Esther is brought home Max is ecstatic to have an older sister. Max is completely deaf and on the way home Esther learns how to greet her with sign language. With Daniel there is instant sibling rivalry, he doesn't want anything to do with this new sister. The marriage between Kate and John feels real. Through out the film their flaws and history are brought into the light but they are always in love with one another, even when they have problems their marriage endures. There was great care put into these characters and I very much appreciated it, especially in this genre.

At first Esther is nothing more than a peculiar girl. She prefers to spend time alone and dresses like she is from another time period even when she is presented with alternative outfits. She is also very guarded about her secrets. Her dark intentions begin to show up pretty much as soon as she arrives. When anybody slights her she returns the offense and then some. It is interesting to watch her begin to play Kate and John against each other and slowly begin to erode the trust in their household.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra used a technique in this film that I appreciate, then became annoyed with, and then appreciated again. He is well aware of the conventional ways to get people to jump out of their seats. Traditionally, if somebody opens something like a fridge door it is usually accompanied by tense music that builds until the door is shut and somebody sinister is now hiding behind the door. In this film somebody will open a fridge door and the music will be cued but when the door is shut nobody is standing there. After reflecting on this technique I found it to be more than clever, it was very effective.

It was used to make the audience feel uncomfortable and on edge. This is how the main characters feel when Esther comes into their home. As I mentioned before they have emotionally let their guard down and invited her into their home. As Kate and the kids begin to find out more about this girl they start to fear her. They feel like they are on edge and they never feel like they can trust her. To them she is always lurking behind a door or in the shadows. They never feel safe in their own home and the audience feels that tension.

This is a very well made horror and it is well executed, that is until the third act. I was so disappointed by the final 30 minutes of this film because the first 90 were so good. The actors put so much work into grounding these character in reality only to have the film collapse in the end. There is a twist concerning Esther's back story that I completely bought, even if it is a bit of stretch (it doesn't hurt that it is loosely based on a true story). From the point this twist was revealed the film took a nose dive into the shallow end of horror cliches.

Aside from the ending this film is a smart character focused horror film that doesn't rely on blood and gore to creep you out.

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