OK, let’s make it perfectly clear: I’m writing a review of The Orphan for one reason and one reason alone – my daughter asked me to. After all, what benefit is there in writing another review of yet another horror flick? They’re all formulaic and predictable, aren’t they?
Well, yes and no. Let’s face it, the genre has become pretty tired in recent years. We’ve done the vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens, devils, ghosts, ghouls, flashers, slashers, serial killers, psychos, assorted maniacs and monsters, human and otherwise, to death. Every so often each sub-genre is reinvented with a new take, such as the vampires and werewolves reimagined for romantic teenage girls in the form of the Twilight franchise. By and large, each “new” horror movie is a variant of the above.
Depends what you mean by horror, of course. In my personal view you don’t necessarily need gore by the metre, ghostly effects or whatever, you need two key ingredients: a credible and cohesive story and a director who understands suspense and the power of NOT showing, much as Tobe Hooper did in creating the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yes, you need something to make you jump out of your seat every now and again, but to craft suspense and build it to an overall climax requires a master of the art. Blood and endless ways to terminate human life seems to me unsubtle, but there are addicts out there who like nothing better. Sick or what?
Directors are trying to reinvent the genre on a continuous treadmill. Most fail miserably because they lack the essential quality to turn base metal and even average stories into cinematic gold. CGI alone doth not a movie make, any more than men in silly monster suits did in the 50s.
Hitchcock managed without whizzy computer stuff through sheer craft and an understanding of how to build suspense and manipulate an audience’s reactions with the likes of Psycho, The Birds and Frenzy. Polanksi could play with the mind and make the audience feel uncomfortable more than almost anyone – watch Repulsion if you don’t believe me. David Lynch too – try Eraserhead and Blue Velvet for two movies that mess with your mind and leave you more truly horrified than the occasional leap.
Which brings me to The Orphan, for which some marketing bod dreamed up the slogan “there’s something wrong with Esther.” We have a number of well-honed ingredients here, straight out of the horror scrapbook: the wealthy and apparently happy family with a tragedy behind them but also skeletons in the sizeable closet. Then the creepy outsider inveigles her way into a charming and wholesome middle class American household, then quickly causes chaos through menaces. Cue nastiness, murders, denouement and now-she’s-here-now-she’s-gone finale.
To be fair, this is one of the better made examples of the genre, thanks in no small measure to excellent performances by the emoting Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrmann in particular, but Jaume Collet-Serra has not quite perfected the difficult art of blend horror set pieces into a story without it looking like a patchwork quilt. It’s not at all bad, but great cinema it ain’t – though when push comes to shove the executive producers (including Leonardo DiCaprio among their number) were more looking for a return on investment than a timeless classic.
You just wish it was more about imagination and less about formula, the imagination here being to devise a script with believable three-dimensional characters about whom you could care more before they are ripped asunder.