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Orphan: Gory fun

By Sukanya Verma
September 25, 2009 18:53 IST
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A scene from OrphanThe greatest accomplishment of horror films is the extent to which they fiddle your imagination.

A slight nudge when accompanied with a thud in the background or a swish of the curtain in pin-drop silence could play havoc with the best of nerves. These are old tricks but far from redundant.

And so it's not too hard to understand why filmmakers love to fashion a chiller thriller around an innocent, quite often, exotic-faced kid. In Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan, it's a nine-year-old Russian girl called Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman).

There's something immediately untrustworthy about her composed speech, curious gaze and fiendish smile, which is further amplified with an ominous background score and deceptive camera angles.

Orphan opens with a gruesome sequence involving a stillborn stained in blood giving you a gory indication of things to come. If you are the kind who tenaciously follows Japanese and Korean psychological horror, you will neither cringe nor turn uncomfortably in your seat. Compared to that, this is laughable. But for the uninitiated, as the episodes unfold Orphan gets wilder, virulent and dense.

Adopted by the Colemans -- John (Peter Sarsgaard suitably conveys the limp, reluctant, vague temperament of his character), an architect and Kate (Vera Farmiga gets into the nervous, faltering yet determined skin of Kate, never letting the film down even if it's not always reciprocated), an ex-music professor with an alcoholic past, along with their biological children Danny and Max, Esther takes up to her new home quite easily. Her lady-like demeanor and preference for strange vintage-clothing earn her a freak's tag at school, much to Danny's dismay. Esther is oddly not affected in the least. When not playing piano like a pro, she converses in sign language with the deaf and mute Max. 

A scene from OrphanBut in true tradition of a thriller, hunky dory moments don't last too long. The garb of secrecy is soon lifted what with all the usual suspects making their presence felt in Orphan, a half-baked caper that faithfully holds on to the norms of this genre. Be it the cleverly planted misunderstandings, well-thought out emotional manipulation, deliberately executed mishaps or masterminded murders.

All these events have one thing in common. Too bad the only person who knows the truth happens to be one person no one believes.

While the twist in the plot doesn't hit a punch like say a Sixth Sense, it sure is unexpected. If only Orphan wasn't so keen on reducing itself to a sick blood fest.

What starts out like an engaging exploration of a strange child's arrival in a somewhat emotionally-strained family takes the shape of a B-grade slasher flick. Watch the never-ending violent climax, you'll know.

A scene from OrphanThat's a pity because director Serra had some strong opportunities in hand. Instead of giving us a full-blown thriller about the science of unknown with motive and intelligence, he dwarfs a potential script to highlight contrived elements like false panic, shock-a-second and nasty sound effects. Even so, there's still considerable surprise in store in its running time of 122 minutes.

What makes Orphan worth its while is its gifted star Isabelle Fuhrman. Fuhrman is frighteningly good. Whether it's that hostile glimmer in her eyes or triumphant smile of evil, her performance and body language wear the confidence and convictions of a seasoned player. As Esther, this is one dark kid you neither want to mess with nor play Mommy-Daddy to.

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Sukanya Verma in Mumbai