Horror movies deserve to be graded on a different scale than regular movies. There’s so much formula and history to the genre it almost requires an entirely different set of skills to create an effectively scary film than it does to create a compelling drama or comedy. The sort of character-driven, hero vs. obstacle storytelling that runs rampant in most movies is generally the antithesis of the modern slasher movie, where oftentimes the murderer is the most compelling character. It’s been a gradual evolution over time from protagonist-driven scarefests like Alien or the original Friday the 13th to hilarious splatterfests like the Final Destination series. Rather than expecting the protagonist to succeed, the shallow characterizations of the heroes simply make them easier to visualize as imminent victims in an escalating sequence of graphic murders.
And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. Since its beginnings, film has been about marveling at spectacle, about showing the audience the formerly unknown, bringing the unbelievable one step closer to reality. In the same way that gamers get off on Grand Theft Auto killing sprees or watching their Sims starve to death in a door-less room, horror junkies have found cathartic release in the gory demises of promiscuous teens and the heart-pumping tension that precedes them. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, there’s something all too human about rooting for catastrophe, as if religion and law were invented solely to prevent our natural predisposition for destruction. Like the people who watch NASCAR hoping for a crash, there’s something strangely natural about the voyeuristic desire to witness the worst, only to receive a soma-like burst of schadenfreude in the end.
I doubt anyone was expecting a dissection of film and humanity when they clicked on a link to a review of the movie Orphan, but in the same way that it’s easy to trivialize the written word in an increasingly technical age, it’s easier still to write off a horror movie as cheap schlock before it’s even given a chance to scare the bejeesus out of you. Orphan plays with that sensibility from minute one, providing an immediate look at the b-movie bullshit we’ve grown to expect and then turning it on its ear. Not only has director Jaume Collet-Serra sculpted a masterfully scary horror movie, his eye for shot composition and ability to coax beautiful performances out of actor and child-actor alike is something to be admired. Perhaps he fired his previous cinematographer or simply had a better script to work with, but Collet-Serra has come a long way from 2005’s hysterically crappy House of Wax.*
Orphan has a ridiculous premise and its opening dream sequence is an homage to the schlocky horror that birthed it. Rather than continuing down the b-movie route, Collet-Serra takes us on a surprising turn toward humor, warmth and drama. The performances by the lead actors are consistently impressive for a horror film, especially that of Aryana Engineer, the young actress portraying Vera Farmiga’s adorably deaf daughter (yes, I did just say that). Of course Isabelle Furhman steals the show as the secretly evil adopted Orphan with unclear intentions. There is occasionally too much plot and crybaby drama slowing things down, specifically with regards to Farmiga’s alcoholism subplot and Peter Sarsgaard’s dopey husband in disbelief moments, but Furhman’s intensity provides the film with enough tension that the boring parts are few and far between. When the brutality happens (and man, does it happen) you can’t help being caught between a rock and a hard place: Should we be rooting for Farmiga to wise up to her adopted daughter’s cruelty, or for Fuhrman to off the whole family in the grossest ways imaginable?
In the end, this is a movie based around a twist which many of you have already spoiled for yourselves by reading it online. I blame the marketing campaign for highlighting the twist so blatantly, as its barely important for your enjoyment of the movie. Orphan is a successful horror film because it constantly keeps you on your toes and sustains a tension that is rarely seen in the genre these days. Shots of night-driving in the snow and the sequence when a car rolls backwards down a hill are enough to please cinema buffs, but the real joy is the ride that the movie takes you on, never letting you stop for a moment to question how asinine and bizarre the premise is and instead keeping you constantly curling your toes in nervous anticipation. The 11:35 pm Thursday audience at The Grove in Hollywood was filled with the late-night date crowd, and I haven’t heard more terrified laughter since Sarah Palin was announced as a vice presidential candidate. This is a movie that effectively placates your emotions, letting you laugh at times and making your hair stand on end at others. I can’t recommend this movie enough to mainstream audiences, because there simply isn’t anything else scary playing right now, and at times we all need a reminder of why we go to the movies: to feel something, whether it makes us chuckle or shakes us to the bone.
* I will give Collet-Serra credit for two great moments in House of Wax: How swiftly the pipe enters Paris Hilton’s skull, as if there were no bone or brain matter to provide friction; and how hilariously morbid it is to watch an evil redneck clip off a girl’s finger while having casual conversation with her brother.