Hoorah! It’s so rare that we get a genuinely funny sendup of horror movies, a satire of this overbaked and underimaginative genre that knows all the tired tropes — the “scary” music and the “menacing” camera angles and the telegraphing every boo! — and deploys them with such refreshing pointlessness, as if to say: “Gosh, this is all so ridiculous, isn’t it? And not in the least bit frightening. But here, enjoy this portentously and threatening, ohhhhh [camera seeks around for something that can be rendered faux-chilling, the more mundane and typically unthreatening the better], squeaky medicine cabinet!”
Yes, I’m being sarcastic.
Oh, how I wish it were true that Orphan was a knowing parody, instead of an unwitting one. That squeaky bathroom medicine cabinet? It’s for real here, part of the pretend ominousness that looms over the first half of this overlong flick: before it ever bothers to even attempt to float anything that might potentially be the stuff of a horror movie, it’s all throbbing score and lingering looks into shadows where there’s nothing at all going on but where director Jaume Collet-Serra would desperately like us to believe there might be something absolutely horrifying lurking.
“Look, it’s gonna be a horror movie: we promise — just bear with us for a bit,” first-time screenwriters David Johnson and Alex Mace appear to be telling us for that looong first hour, and Collet-Serra joins them in their delusion. What they really have is an otherwise tedious domestic drama — about John and Kate Coleman, who’ve lost a baby and are about to adopt an older child upon whom to shower that frustrated love — that is saved by the considerable talents of Peter Sarsgaard (Rendition, Jarhead) and Vera Farmiga (Nothing But the Truth, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), as the Colemans. They’re two of the most underappreciated and underutilized thirtysomething actors working today, and I’d love to see them in a drama worthy of their gifts.
But domestic dramas don’t put butts in multiplex seats: horror movies do. Even when they’re as monotonous, obvious, and predictable as this one. So enter nine-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a precocious but gifted kid with a troubled past. Collet-Serra creeps her up with sinister camera angles and eerie music and worried looks from folk, but really, it’s just because we already know this is supposed to be a horror movie that we even have a clue that we’re meant to be frightened by her. (None of this should come as a surprise: the director’s previous horror movie, 2005’s House of Wax remake, was equally ridiculous and equally unscary.) It’s only because Collet-Serra hopes we have preconceived notions about cinematic demon children — preconceived notions that have been pumped up by the film’s marketing, of course, which surely must be considered a character in this drama itself — that every little perfectly normal childhood idiosyncrasy becomes “disturbing.” Esther doesn’t want to go to the dentist? What kid does? Esther is particular about her clothes? Many kids are. But, you know: BOO! anyway.
But wait! As if to make up for the desperately unscary first half, Orphan goes into preposterous overdrive in its second half, piling on absurdities (though never ones so wild that you won’t have already guessed the twists) and piling on the manipulation. It’s not enough that Kate lost a baby: she also had a drinking problem. And she lost a job she loved. And something bad happened to one of her other kids. Oh, and her husband cheated on her.
It’s still not much like a horror movie — well, apart from some very graphic violence dished out with some very disturbing glee by Collet-Serra. It’s more like one of those overwrought “women’s” movies from the 1950s in which a bad mother is punished for not being a proper woman, with a lot of splattered blood and bashed skulls as set dressing. It’s all very much like a joke… but not a funny one.