July 30, 2009

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Orphan (R)
As countless trailers have informed you, the Eastern-European-accented, anachronistically dressed ghostly-complexion-having orphan Esther is troubled (I know, take a moment to absorb your shock) in Orphan, a gleefully silly horror movie.

A few life tips should you ever end up living inside a horror movie: if you’re looking to adopt, don’t adopt the precisely groomed child dressed in turn-of-the-last-century garb. That child is clearly evil. As is just about any kid with pale pale skin, dark dark hair and creepily big eyes — whether adopted or biologically your own, these physical attributes are almost always signifiers of evil. (Even blonde-haired children’s hair gets darker and more neatly combed when they turn evil.)

Also, don’t live in an ultra-modern house. Just as old homes bought “for a steal” from suspiciously highly motivated sellers always turn out to be evil, beautifully constructed, window-filled modernistic creations usually end up being big boxes o’ death. If you must be an upper-middle-class family (though, sigh, you’re just begging for tragedy if you own a s high-end minivan and can afford matching furniture), don’t have family secrets or physical or mental flaws that will prevent one of the family members from being believed or understood when they to point out to the other surprisingly unaware members of the family that the new kid/the kid who no longer sleeps nights/Dad/you yourself are evil.

If only Kate (Vera Farmiga) had heeded these warnings. But after recovering from the miscarriage of her third child, she decides to adopt a girl to live in her upper-middle-class gorgeously modern home filled with lovely furniture and painful secrets. Naturally, when she and husband John (Peter Sarsgaard — yes, John and Kate; they were doomed from the start) go to the orphanage, they pass right by all the probably-not-evil children and head straight to Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the ghostly child singing to herself as she paints and telling them right up front that she’s “different.” (True, she didn’t specify that by “different” she meant rage-filled and homicidal. Still, there were clues.)

But John and Kate ignore all the tell-tale signs and gleefully adopt Esther. At first, things seem to go well — Esther quickly bonds with Max (Aryana Engineer), Kate’s young daughter who is deaf. But the kids at school think Esther and her Little Bo Peep clothes (as one girl calls Esther’s attire — a snark that she later regrets, I’m sure) is weird, as does John and Kate’s oldest child, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), who delightfully expresses his feelings with a “she’s not my bleeping sister” blow-up.

Even if trailers didn’t so heavily demonstrate the evilness of Esther you’d know she was evil. You’d know that after a brief honeymoon period, she’d start to display troubling behaviors, like making creepy threats, painting slightly odd pictures and trying to kill people. I’ll bet you can even guess the punchline at the big evil-versus-good showdown (hint: another evil-child movie used a version of it a few years back).

Despite becoming increasingly laughable as the story progresses, Orphan is kind of a blast to watch and I don’t think it’s entirely unintentional. I think they made Peter Sarsgaard’s character kind of a wimp on purpose. I like that Vera Farmiga’s character is hip to the strangeness around her and isn’t afraid to (eventually) call shenanigans on her evil new child. I like that at a certain point the kids are comically freaked out by their new sister and their parents don’t pick up on some pretty obvious signs of their discomfort. I even like that operatically silly children’s drawings become a plot point in the movie.

Orphan isn’t the kind of scary you’re probably looking for from your horror movie; it isn’t even the kind of goofy-scary you get from a fun but chill-inducing horror movie like Drag Me to Hell. But, in spite of itself (or maybe because of all its wonderfully clichéd flaws) Orphan is fairly entertaining. C+

Rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by David Johnson and Alex Mace, Orphan is two hours and three minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.