A Look Back: Orphan

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” is a motto that can apply to quite a few things. Including: a) email from foreign royalty or online popups informing you that you’ve just won a free laptop, b) or (in the snail mail era) congratulation letters from the Publisher’s Cleainghouse Sweepstakes, or c) anyone who comes for an extended visit in a Hollywood movie, particularly if their first act is to charm the pants off everyone – except the token skeptic who everyone rolls their eyes at for being such a spoilsport. “My Houseguest from Hell,” featuring newly adopted children, new roommates, or even just overly friendly cable guys, is a popular theme in Hollywood movies, as the horror movie “Orphan,” shows. The tagline is “Can you keep a secret?” though it could also have been, “Imagine adopting a child even wore than (The Omen’s) Damien.” Though I think the star of “Orphan,” a nine-year-old played by Isabelle Furhman could easily defeat Damien in a battle of evil versus evil, she might have more of a challenge going pigtail to pigtail with Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed.”

In Drew Barrymore’s wilderness years when she was a teen, she played (among other villains) a houseguest from hell in the movie “Poison Ivy.’ While certainly grisly and creepy, the film unfortunately gives its game away in the opening scene when Drew clonks an injured dog on the head to put it out of its misery then proceeds to sweetly smile. “Orphan,” however, plays its cards close to its chest. First we meet what looks to be a struggling but still loving couple consisting of Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, who feel adrift after the death of their infant daughter. Though they have two other adorable preteen children (played by Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer), one of whom (Aryana) is deaf due to a neglectful act on the part of Vera, they think it might be good to adopt another kid. So off they go to a Catholic orphanage, where they (ominous rumble of thunder in the distance) fall in love with a curiously prim but artistic and engaging Russian girl named Esther.

Pretty soon they bring her home for a trial run, where she gets along famously with everyone except Jimmy. But soon, unexplained, very bad things start occurring whenever Isabelle happens to be in the vicinity (including a school bully ending up in the hospital). Sure enough, when Vera starts investigating into Isabelle’s past, she finds that the girl is not (and this is a big “not”) at all what she appears to be. In fact – spoiler alert – she’s an adult! Who has a bone stunting disease that makes her look like a child! And who used to reside in a mental hospital! Yes, really. While the viewer is doing mental gymnastics trying to wrap their brain around that concept, lots of horrible things start happening, involving a hammer, one of the staff from the orphanage, a tree house, multiple fires and in the climax, an icy pond. This cinematic game of “Clue” ends with the family safe and sound, but with the viewer likely to be shaken and left scratching their head, feeling a few beats behind the twists.

Random anecdote: I once knew a woman who adopted two Russian orphans roughly the same age and younger than Isabelle’s character (at least as originally believed) who turned out not to actually be sisters. Luckily, however, compared to the family in “Orphan,” she got off easy, and it didn’t really turn out to matter. Still, adoption can be a hazardous procedure in movies, and it might be best to adopt singing orphans, not ones with artistic talent, or perhaps avoid adoption altogether. Or at least pick the kid who’s running around like everyone else. Although if it’s a horror film, you’re probably screwed no matter what.

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