Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jaume Collet-Serra's creepy ORPHAN: schlock done right


Let's admit it: We need our schlock, some of us, at least. Our scares, our tin-
gles, our rub-ups against those things that go bump in the dead of night. If we are going to get them anyway (since Holly-
wood seems bent on serving 'em up more often than anything else), they should only be as classy, as much creepy fun as ORPHAN, a film that TrustMovies has come late to, given its

rather dismissive set of reviews.

The movie is written with a modicum of intelligence and wit by David Johnson (his husband/wife "fuck/bitch" exchange is really quite clever and truthful regarding how certain well-to-do young marrieds behave) from a story by Alex Mace. These two newcomers join the relatively new director Jaume Collet-Serra (shown, right: the man who gave us the not-terrible House of Wax remake a few years back), and they and their crew make smart use of their movie's probably rather small budget so that Orphan looks very good, while serving up scares with more foreboding & suspense than out-and-out shock & blood. When the latter arrive--and they do--they're given style, surprise and sass.

Orphan certainly deserves an "R" rating, especially because of its gleeful mash-up of relatively innocent children and truly horrible deeds, which makes the film all the more disturbing. That it is acted quite well, too, from its three leads on down, sends it up another notch. Collet-Serra and his scripters see to it that we're kept off-balance regarding just what is going on with the pretty but odd little orphan of the title, a role brought to terrific life by another relative newcomer Isabelle Furhman, who was but eleven years old when she made this film. Almost bizarrely poised and self-contained, Ms Fuhrman joins the happy family (above) then moves from sweet & tearful to monstrous & frightening then back again with enormous -- and more importantly, believable -- ease.

In the roles of her adoptive parents are two actors whose work I try never to miss: Vera Farmiga (above right) and Peter Sarsgaard (above left). Each has had better roles and will again but you never get the feeling that either regards this assignment as slumming. Both turn in specific and nuanced work that helps negotiate treach-
erous terrain as Ms Fuhrman's character (shown below -- yes, that is a blood-stained hammer in her little hand) pits one parent against the other while frightening her siblings into submission.

The plot itself is relative "hooey," but even here, the company -- including CCH Pounder as a conflicted sister at the orphanage and Margo Martindale as an analyst -- skillfully guides us along. Instead of having characters who manage one stupidly delayed action after another, these rise to the occasion more quickly than most. Just about the time you say, "Come on idiot: call the police!" they're doing just that. And when they don't turn on the light in the basement, it's because they can't.

I am not saying that Orphan is any kind of classic, mind you. But in a time when torture-porn seems to have taken over the scary-movie slot, it's nice to find a film that remembers how to scare us rather than gross us out, while keeping us riveted. A word should also be said for the excellent art work supposedly done by the title character; it's aces, as are some of the lighting effects (below) that render hidden meanings suddenly obvious. One of the pleasure of the film is how it builds mystery and suspense around the small things -- like that art, or the ribbons little Esther likes to wear around her neck and wrists, or her very private bathing routine -- all of them splendid replacement for the usual array of spilled guts, explosions and car chases. This movie is the work of many Quebecois, by the way, and if they can turn out films this professionally, then I say Vive les French-Canadians!

Orphan is available now on DVD from Netflix or your favorite video rental source, or for sale via Amazon and the like.

4 comments:

GHJ - said...

I'll never be able to get over the beyond silly ending, and the truly awful development of character. But I get where you're coming from. There's certainly potential here.

Erin said...

Yes! This is why we get along so well, James. I watched this film while sick and kept thinking "I should turn this off because it's making me so tense" but I just had to see how crazy it would get. I was not disappointed.. holy moly! Best pay off in a horror movie this year? I think so.

James van Maanen, said...

That ending seems to come with the genre, doesn't it: the villain coming back again and again for one more try? As to character development, these films seldom have it. Plot is all. The characters, such as they are, are simply there - start to finish. But with this cast, at least you got some nuance. I'm probably over-rating (my tendency) but against so much else, Orphan looks pretty good.

James van Maanen, said...

Hey Erin -- good to hear from you! But I hope you're feeling better by now. Watching Orphan while under the weather? I don't know.... And that "payoff": I don't want to spoil things for anyone (so of course I will: Spoiler ahead!), but I presume you are talking about who little Esther is. Yeah: it surprised me, too. I agree: best all year.