The "evil psycho kid" subgenre of horror movies is, at all times, a delicate thing to navigate without falling into the worst kinds of exploitative traps. Not because of the subject matter per se - I'm not enough of a prude that the very notion of a child murdering people with crazed glee is a problem -but because of the very real question of where we draw the line at protecting the child actor from unhealthy or inappropriate behavior on camera. It's a fine line and a serious question, and one that the makers of Orphan seem entirely unconcerned about asking of themselves in their rush to produce a film chock full of hugely problematic moments involving a nine-year-old girl played by a twelve-year-old actress. The scene where she kills a nun with a hammer I can probably let by; much less so the scene where she makes herself up like a high-class whore to seduce her adopted father. And I really have nothing but contempt for any movie that successfully plays a scene in which a child is slapped by a grown woman as grounds for enthusiastic cheering the audience.

The orphan of the title is a little girl from Russia, named Esther (Isabelle Furhman), adopted by a family who has recently suffered the pain of a miscarriage and is seeking to rebuild their broken hearts by grabbing the first available child; apparently kids are not unlike kittens in this regard. At any rate, the Colemans - Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) and their pre-existing two children, Danny (Jimmy Bennett) and Maxine (Aryana Engineer) - have had quite enough of trauma, between Kate's miscarriage (which may or may not have been the result of her alcoholism), Max's accident-induced hearing loss (which was definitely the result of Kate's alcoholism), and John's ancient infidelity that he only recently saw fit to bring to light (which was probably the cause of Kate's alcoholism), and they hope that the bright, socially awkward, mature-beyond-her-years little orphan girl will help stabilise their home (by the way, do you like how I kept bringing up Kate's alcoholism over and over again, without the slightest pretext, including right now? If yes, you'll probably like Orphan).

Things don't work out that way. For one thing, Esther acts out her social problems through violence, which isn't necessarily inexplicable, but certainly ought to count as a red flag. Secondly, she kills a bird that Danny maimed with a paintball gun, in what is among the film's most poorly-judged scenes; it's meant to establish that Esther is creepy and murderous, but for my money just made her seem pragmatically Russian, and made Danny seem like an absolute dick. Thirdly - most importantly, she has a Dark Secret, and she'll kill and blackmail to make sure that it doesn't come out. I'll give this much credit to the movie: I absolutely did not see the twist coming. This is because the twist, which I will not give away although I'd dearly love to, is unconscionably fucking stupid.

Then again, by the time the twist comes, Orphan has been doing cannonballs into the deep end of unconscionably fucking stupid for a good 100 minutes - the film boasts an absolutely unforgivable 123-minute running time - and thus the twist isn't all that much of a disappointment. My jaw first dropped around the time that the Colemans finalised their adoption, moving from "we're thinking of adopting" to "hi kids, this is Esther, your new sister!" in the span of weeks at the most, and the editing makes it seem much more like just a day or two. Apparently kids are not unlike kittens in this regard, either. At any rate, your mileage may vary about whichever violation of common sense and story logic finally pushes you over the edge with the movie.

Even when it's not trafficking in balls-out idiocy, the film never makes any attempt to rise above the blandest kind of psycho-drama meant to give trashy horror the sheen of respectability. This drama falls flat - Orphan's writers, Alex Mace and David Johnson (the debut project for both of them), actually try to present Kate's alcoholism and the way that it resulted in Max's deafness as some kind of subject of mystery to the audience, despite the fact that nobody who has seen more than a few of these movies will take more than the first scene to figure it out. And the musty old idea of a couple trapped in a strained marriage is given a thorough workout as well, with many scenes late on consisting of Kate insisting that Esther is up to no good, and John retorting that Kate only thinks that BECAUSE SHE'S AN ALCOHOLIC! WHO DRINKS ALCOHOL! Great characterisations these are not, and since the film incomprehensibly positions itself as a character-driven thriller rather than just a straight up horror picture, that is to its deep detriment.

There is one point on which I will give Orphan some serious props, and that is its performances. No, not Farmiga, whose performance consists mostly of various looks of disgusted terror, nor Sarsgaard, who only gets one vaguely interesting scene, and ruins it with incredibly fake Oscar Clip- style crying. But Furhman, as wicked little Esther, and Engineer, as the trusting, callow Max, both give startlingly great performances, given their ages. Indeed, insofar as the abominable twist works on any level, it's because Furhman sells it so damn convincingly; while Engineer demonstrates the gradual shift from affection to fear that Farmiga ought to have been employing herself. None of this obviates the scenes that these young actresses, particularly Furhman, are obliged to play. But I don't want to seem like a moral scold.

Not when moral scolding can only add so much to a film as content to bask in tired clichés and idiocy as Orphan. And false scares! How could I forget to mention director Jaume Collet-Serra's Big Bag of False Scares? Which are unusually false in this case: at moments in the movie where there is absolutely no reason to assume that anything bad is about to happen, the score starts to pierce with that "she's coming to get you" music, and Collet-Serra carefully frames a door, and when it opens... nothing is there! This nice little trick is played at least four times, and it gets far less charming every single time. When your horror film is so unhorriyfing that you have to try conjuring scares out of nothing but literal thin air and cheap music, it's probably time to move to a less demanding genre, although what can possibly be less demanding than crappy horror is unknown to me.

3/10