Orphan not related or to be confused with the recent Spanish ghost story The Orphanage (2007) is a variant on the well-worn psycho-thriller standard of the evil psycho child. The first film to feature such was the classic The Bad Seed (1956) and the theme has featured in other efforts like The Godsend (1980), Bloody Birthday (1981), Mikey (1992), The Good Son (1993), Relative Fear (1994), Daddys Girl (1996), Joshua (2007), Case 39 (2009), which came out only two weeks before Orphan where I live, and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Indeed, Isabelle Fuhrman who plays the evil child here was apparently up for the leading roles in both Orphan and Case 39 at one point. (For that matter, Vera Farmiga has played the mentally unbalanced mother of a psychopathic child both here and in Joshua). To be fair to Orphan, its effective if preposterously contrived twist ending reveals that what we have is not exactly a psycho child film after all but in all other ways up to that point, it is played as though such were the case.
Maybe things were ruined by coming from having just seen the fine Case 39, maybe I was expecting more of what Jaume Collet-Sera turned out with the not-too-bad House of Wax and went onto two of Dark Castles non-genre thrillers, but I felt heavily disappointed with Orphan. A sinking feeling came from the opening moments, where Collet-Sera gives us a scene with Vera Farmiga undergoing a bloody miscarriage-cum-abortion, before pulling back to reveal it is just a dream sequence. When a film needs to throw in these false red herring jumps, it signals it does not have much else in its arsenal. Everywhere else, Jaume Collet-Sera and his sound effects department are constantly trying to make us jump in our seats with unexpected appearances of things like Peter Sarsgaards face in the bathroom mirror, kids abruptly running across the foreground of a shot at the orphanage, a basketball loudly slamming against the wall and so forth. All of this only signals a mediocre film attempting to pump its atmosphere up and jangle an audiences wits where it clearly feels that it cannot do so any other way.
Unfortunately, there is little about Orphan that works. The script seems written entirely by the numbers. All it is is the routine playing out of tired plot devices where you can virtually see the strings and pulleys wheeling everything into place. Jaume Collet-Sera produces various cookie-cutter jumps and faux scares but fails to create any genuine tension. Moreover, almost every one of the jumps is telegraphed well before it happens. About the one moment that Orphan does venture into something fairly out there is where Isabelle Fuhrman puts on a party dress and makeup and tries to seduce her foster father Peter Sarsgaard, where you sit there thinking whoo, this is heading for some nastily unpleasant taboo territory. As with too many horror films of recent, everything feels like the predictable turnings of a film that has been made by autopilot. See the much superior Case 39 for an object lesson in how to conduct a near-identical plot with a considerable degree of subtlety in the scares.
The adult cast are acceptable. Vera Farmiga is professional and convincing, if lumbered with a role that never digs beneath one-sentence descriptions. On the other hand, Peter Sarsgaard seems an odd choice as the husband though not necessarily any fault of Sarsgaards, he has constantly lidded eyes that lead to a naturally untrustworthy look. You keep expecting it is going to be revealed that he is having an affair or up to something behind Vera Farmigas back and it is a disappointment when his role proves to be no more than a standard one.
Isabelle Fuhrman gets all the nastily scheming glares down fairly well. Several reviewers jumped in and instantly called her one of the great child performers. It may be something that Isabelle Fuhrmans subsequent roles bear out, but in truth, the role of Esther is a one-dimensional one. All there is to it is Fuhrman simmering and looking mean before predictably doing something nasty. That is the sum definition of the role. Hypopituitarism is pulled out of the hat as an explanation later on but that is simply a condition of abnormal hormonal growth, not any explanation of psychopathic behaviour. I keep coming back to Case 39 but Jodelle Ferlands performance there is infinitely superior. She had an alarming way of suddenly shifting between calculating evil and child-like sweetness. No such dichotomy exists here.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra next went onto make the thriller Unknown (2011), also for Dark Castle, followed by the action films Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and The Commuter (2018), and the killer shark film The Shallows (2016). Collet-Serra has also produced Hooked Up (2013), Mindscape (2013), Eden (2014), Curve (2015) and Extinction (2015).