The Aberrations aren’t likely to spawn sequels or inspire remakes. No one will mistake them for classics; their supporters are a silent minority. Yet there’s something interesting about them, something odd or provocative enough to warrant a bit of consideration.
By its very nature, horror sets out to challenge taboos. It questions whether people are inherently good, a benevolent God exists, and a comforting afterlife awaits, and it comes away with serious doubts. The Frankenstein story traffics in blasphemy. Vampirism can be a metaphor for transgressive sex, lycanthropy a metaphor for suppressed sexual urges bursting to the surface. Zombies violate both our notion of death and our aversion to cannibalism.
For the last fifty years, some of our best horror movies have subverted the sanctity of the American family. Psycho is about a son who murdered his mother and assumed her identity while murdering others. Night of the Living Dead features a daughter murdering her mother with a garden trowel. Halloween opens with a boy murdering his half-nude sister in her bedroom. The Shining depicts a man’s attempt to REDRUM his wife and son.
All’s not well in the family, according to horror, and the kids aren’t alright. To further hammer that point home, the genre provides enough psychotic and demonic children to fill a subgenre – The Bad Seed, The Village of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, The Exorcist, It’s Alive, The Omen, Children of the Corn, The Good Son – not to mention this century’s wave, ranging from The Ring to Sinister and so on.
All of which brings us to Orphan, released in 2009. I wanted to like Orphan, I really did. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t enjoy horror movies. I root for them to be good even though I know most of them aren’t. And Orphan isn’t.
Here’s the setup: Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) live with their two children in Connecticut. Kate is recovering from both her alcoholism and her third child’s stillbirth. The couple decides she’s well enough to adopt another child. They go to an orphanage, where John instantly bonds with Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a charming, smart, artistic nine-year-old Russian girl.
Esther soon proves to be adept at animal cruelty and dropping f-bombs. Soon after that, her mean streak extends to other kids, including her siblings. Soon after that, well, you can see where this is going, and yes, there will be blood. Orphan presents a paint-by-the-numbers template in its opening minutes, and before you can ask, “that’s all you got?” it goes about filling that template with every color you’d expect exactly where you’d expect.
Will that sliding medicine-cabinet mirror be used for a jump scare? Will the mean girl who bullies Esther receive a brutal comeuppance? Once Kate realizes that Esther is a monster, will John fail to believe Kate’s frantic warnings? Will Esther find a way to tweak Kate about the stillbirth? Will Kate be tempted to drink again? Will the frozen pond by the family house factor into the climax?
Orphan expends no energy in avoiding such predictability, but it still wants to shock. It nearly succeeds when Esther tries to seduce a tipsy John. This delirious scene makes you wonder what you’re watching and why you’re watching it. For those few minutes, Orphan teeters between the sublimely ridiculous and truly disturbing. Then it delivers its big twist and settles for neither.
The twist is this: Kate discovers that Esther is no nine-year-old Russian girl after all. She’s a deranged thirty-three-year-old Estonian with a growth-stunting hormonal disorder. Orphan discloses this information after John has rejected Esther, which means the movie threatens the possibilities of pedophilia and father/adopted-daughter sex only to jump back and say, “Whoa! Just kidding! She’s old! You didn’t really think we’d go there, did you?”
Orphan skirts away from Woody Allen “the heart wants what it wants” territory and into the spectacle of a girl and a grown woman trying to kill each other. But it’s okay, Orphan reassures us, because the girl’s not really a girl (even though she’s played by a girl). The movie prods us to cheer when Kate kicks Esther in the face and fatally breaks her neck, because hey, who can refuse a guilt-free chance to cheer for child abuse?
For all that, Fuhrman’s performance almost salvages the whole wretched enterprise. Only ten years old during the shoot, she conveys intelligence, menace, and a wicked sense of humor. She also does a better Russian accent than Sean Connery or Harrison Ford. She’s fun to watch and the only reason to watch Orphan.
“But wait,” you may say, “what about that twist? You have to admit that’s pretty clever and original.”
No, dear reader, I’m afraid it isn’t. The idea of a criminal dwarf passing for a child goes back at least as far as 1925’s silent The Unholy Three and its 1930 talkie remake. The climax of 1973’s Don’t Look Now also involves a murderous dwarf mistaken for a child. I know that every creative work is influenced by others, and nothing is wholly original. Even so, Orphan is rife with clichés, and its would-be bombshell echoes better movies from bygone eras.
By the time the end credits roll, Orphan hasn’t broken taboos so much as mirrored its own villain. However much it gussies itself up, it’s still a hoary old story posing as something new.