By Charles Cartagena
Orphan, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, takes audiences on a thought-provoking, suspenseful and emotional journey into the lives of a feuding American couple coping with the loss of their third child.
The film sets the audience up for a disappointing, overly gory, cartoonish and stock horror slasher with an off-putting opening dream sequence: Kate (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard, Garden State) enter a brightly lit hospital, anxious for the birth of their third child. Kate is wheeled away from her doting husband when blood begins to pour from the thighs of the would-be mother, who is taken to the delivery room to bear a zombie-ish, stillborn creature.
This scene develops with the old horror mantra of “the bloodier and the louder the better,” but the film is quick to redeem itself with the well-developed and well-executed storytelling that follows this forgettable dream sequence.
Orphan casts off this cliché horror-flick layer early and proceeds to develop many layers of character and plot development. It tackles complex themes of the dysfunctional family, child disability and even plays with the taboo and dangerous subject of pedophilia.
The conflict starts with the couple adopting a seemingly sweet orphan named Esther (played skillfully by Isabelle Fuhrman). Esther is bright, talented, polite and, as such, is quickly chosen from the other orphaned children by the Colemans. However, trouble mounts as Esther’s façade unravels.
The popular tag line “There’s something wrong with Esther,” seen on many of the film’s promotional posters, is appropriate. Throughout the film, the audience is very aware something is, in fact, wrong, but is kept unaware of what that is.
The first reason for concern arises when Esther is caught watching the Colemans have sex in the kitchen. When Kate attempts to talk to Esther about the “birds and the bees,” Esther demonstrates an advanced knowledge of sex and grown-up relationships, which plants a seed of concern in Kate’s mind.
This battle between Kate and Esther drives much of the action of the film. Esther’s seemingly sweet persona fools everyone but Kate, who is ostracized by loved ones as she tries to prove there is something terrible hiding behind Esther’s pigtails and bright smile.
John, an architect who is left to support the family financially after Kate loses her job because of alcoholism, is manipulated by Esther against his drunk of an ex-wife. The sexual tension created between Esther and John creates anxiety throughout the film and comes to a suspenseful peak after Kate is kicked out of her home and Esther attempts to seduce John.
The two Coleman children, Max (Aryana Engineer) and Daniel (James Bennett), also become unwilling pawns in Esther’s war to take over the household. Max, being the more interesting of the two characters, is deaf, and her hearing disability becomes a plot element to enhance certain scenes both of a poignant and terrifying nature. Director Serra shoots scenes from Max’s viewpoint, adding suspense and terror through silence and incorporates sign language, which breaks up conventional screen elements to add originality and a touching sense of bonding between mother and daughter.
Each character is played perfectly to enhance the story and move the sequence of events in a believable and realistic order. Character development serves to unravel the mystery of Esther and connects the audience to the plot, creating a gripping horror film that relies on plot to emotionally invest the audience. By taking the time to engage the audience, the scenes become truly terrifying and memorable.
Orphan serves as an example to its genre that fear needs to be developed, not conjured by loud sudden noises and cliché monsters popping out of corners.
Orphan will play tonight and tomorrow in the BLC Theater at 7:30 p.m.