For some reason the 2009 psychological horror film “Orphan” slipped completely by me. Not only did I not see it during its original release, I don’t remember even hearing about it. In fact, it wasn’t until the announcement of its recently released prequel and its subsequent good word of mouth that I was actually aware of its existence. That’s crazy for me considering that “Orphan” wasn’t some obscure, minuscule budgeted, straight-to-video release. Even more baffling, it stars two acting talents I really enjoy – Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard.
To prep for its prequel, I finally sat down with “Orphan”. It’s directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise”, “Black Adam”), written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Aquaman”, “The Conjuring 2”), and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (???). As mentioned, the film stars Farmiga and Sarsgaard playing a struggling couple who adopt a young girl to help cope with the loss of their own child. Needless to say, things don’t quite turn out as they had hoped.
Kate and John Coleman’s marriage is at a critical point following the stillborn loss of their third child, Jessica. Kate (Farmiga), a recovering alcoholic, is finding it harder to resist her urges to drink. And the couple can’t seem to rekindle the intimacy they once had before losing their baby. After much consideration, Kate and John (Sarsgaard) visit St. Mariana’s Home for Girls and adopt 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman).
Esther is exceptionally bright, well-mannered, and artistic. But she’s not without her eccentricities. For example, she dresses as if she’s been yanked from another time period. And what’s with that old Bible she keeps hidden in her sock drawer? She immediately hits it off with the Coleman’s 5-year-old hearing impaired daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer). But their jealous 12-year-old son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) immediately dislikes the new family addition, and the tension between the two only intensifies.
“Orphan” is one of those movies where the audience knows the angle from the start. We know something is off with Esther and that nothing good is going to come for this family. So it’s all about watching it play out and waiting for the truth about Esther to be revealed. In some films like this, that can be maddening. But kudos to Collet-Serra and Johnson-McGoldrick for creating characters we can connect with and care about. From there the task is to create atmosphere and build tension, something Collet-Serra does very well.
The film is really helped by strong performances from Farmiga, Sarsgaard, and Fuhrman. Farmiga gets the meatiest and most complex role while Sarsgaard is a sturdy scene-sharer. Both find layers of humanity in their characters especially as their family dynamic starts to crumble. In the meantime, Fuhrman is a steadily unnerving presence, and she only gets creepier as Esther’s malevolence grows. It’s a wickedly effective performance.
So it took me a while, but I finally got around to seeing “The Orphan”. I’m glad I did. It’s a fun, preposterous, and at times chilling horror thriller that’s more interested in the psychological than cheap scares or gore galore. Other than a prequel, it’s hard to see what more they could do with it as this works really well as a stand-alone movie. There’s some quality character work, some really good tension-building, and a pretty gnarly final act that should please the genre faithful. “Orphan” is now streaming on Paramount+.