‘Sinister’, ‘The Black Phone’ and the Horror of Obsession

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The small but effective subgenre of “adoption horror” has a certain formula it follows. The newly adopted gradually dismantles the family unit, whether that means manipulating the systems around them or simply taking matters into their own little hands. Then, once someone gets wise to the evildoing, they either stop the young threat or they die trying. As entertaining as these kinds of movies are, they tread a well-worn path. Orphan upholds many of the same conventions as its ilk, however this 2009 movie also brings something new and exciting to the kids’ table.

When Alex Mace‘s original idea for Orphan first reached David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, the then-unfledged screenwriter was given a big sandbox to play in. After all, Mace’s treatment was only a few pages long, so there were a lot of gaps to fill in. And while domestic disturbers The Bad Seed and The Good Son are obvious influences, Johnson-McGoldrick credits Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt as well. He loved the idea of a story where only the audience truly knows something is amiss, whereas the protagonist is still gathering clues.

Like other similar movies, Orphan begins with a family opening itself up to a new member. Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard) have had their fair share of hardships before considering adoption; their third child was a stillborn, and their second, Max (Aryana Engineer), lost her hearing in an accident. However, the couple still has a lot of love to share, and they want to give it “to somebody who really needs it.” Here enters Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the lucky recipient of said love. Right from the start, Esther is not like any other kid at the orphanage; she’s clever, she’s a gifted painter, and she has an old-fashioned sense of style, including the curious ribbons always around her neck and wrists. Something else setting Esther apart from her peers is an exceptional but hidden aptitude for wickedness.

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Esther’s transition is not an easy one; she doesn’t fit in at home or at school. Her new brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) lashes out because he’s feeling neglected, and Esther’s classmates think she’s a total freak. Kate and John want to protect their new daughter, but audiences quickly realize the other children in Orphan aren’t just hazing the new kid or showing signs of jealousy. On the contrary, they realized something is very, very off about Esther, long before the adults ever did.

The fun of Orphan truly begins when there are no more doubts about Esther. Her weird behavior can no longer be dismissed as growing pains, precociousness or narrative deception. Esther’s “good girl” act hits the ground with a thud as she takes a hammer to a nun’s (CCH Pounder) head, hides the body in a treehouse, and finally threatens to castrate Daniel if he says a word of this to anyone. It takes an hour to get to this point, but the viewers’ patience is rewarded and then some.

Being as smart and insightful as she is, Esther realizes her biggest enemy in the Coleman household is not actually the other children. No, it’s the matriarch, whose rocky past can be used against her. Esther launches a series of mishaps all designed to make Kate look like a terrible mother. This includes threatening Kate’s sobriety, Esther breaking her own arm to imply abuse, and most of all, endangering both Max and Daniel. Orphan does a grand job of making Esther out to be a cunning and cruel creature, whose guile is beyond her years.

Every moment of this thriller is crucial when telling the Colemans’ tragic story. From Kate’s depression to the parents’ infighting, Johnson-McGoldrick plumbs the depths of this family’s endless troubles, exposing weak points for Esther to prey on. The script was put together in the face of a writer’s strike, but make no mistake, Orphan isn’t haphazard horror. The writing deftly displays Kate and John’s underlying problems, broadcasts their glaring flaws, and still makes the two characters sympathetic. Esther herself isn’t afforded as much emotional care, even after the mask is ripped off. Still and all, there is a deep and unspoken sadness to the girl, brought out by actions rather than words.

Orphan

Director Jaume Collet-Serra returned to Dark Castle after helming the quasi-remake House of Wax in 2005. And like that lengthy slasher, Orphan takes the scenic route. Parts of the screenplay were combined to cut down on the number of scenes, yet the movie’s final cut is still close to two hours long. Thankfully, the leads’ performances make the overlong duration go down easier. Each minute with Esther is fascinating; this hellion in pigtails steals every scene she’s in. Fuhrman and Farmiga both have natural charisma and talent, although Fuhrman’s additional training edges her elder out. On top of remembering all her speaking lines, the young actor had to pick up an accent and learn sign language. Her effort paid off, though, because people walk away from this movie remembering Esther, not the runtime.

Anyone going into the movie, with no inkling of what’s to come, is naturally anticipating a demon spawn. The most rotten egg imaginable. The movie stands by its promise, seeing as the character of Esther makes Rhoda Penmark, the original Bad Seed, seem wholesome by comparison. What they didn’t count on is Orphan delivering the most absurd horror twist of the 2000s, a decade already known for its leftfield plot turns. Partly ripped from the headlines, specifically the case of Barbora Skrlova, the movie catches everyone off guard when Esther is revealed to be a 33-year-old woman with hypopituitarism. As if this story couldn’t be any wilder, it outdoes itself without any apologies.

There is something definitely wrong with Esther, and to this day, fans are still itching to find out what that thing is. A large part of this movie’s success is without question Fuhrman, but that last-act rug-pull pushes this one way over the line. And by both satisfying expectations and providing a substantial surprise at the end, Orphan has rightfully become one of the most pleasurable and twisty thrillers from the last twenty years. 


Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

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