Actors have to eat like the rest of us, if evidently not as much, but you still have to wonder how the independent film mainstays Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard ended up wading through Orphan and, for the most part, not laughing. He plays the father, John, an architect, and she plays the mother, Kate, who doesn't do much of anything. Together they watch over Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a younger girl, Max (Aryana Engineer), in one of those sprawling houses that always looks spotless even if no one ever drags a mop across its polished floors, which makes you wonder who will swab up the inevitable pooling blood.
And the blood it does spill, though not nearly fast enough. The age of the economic fright flick is apparently a thing of the past: the first Dracula clocked in at about 75 minutes, the original Cat People runs some 73 minutes, while Night of the Living Dead changed horror forever in just over 90 freaky minutes. Orphan, by contrast, comes in at a padded 2 hours 2 minutes, which is absurd for a dopey boo movie - as in creaking sound plus abrupt visual cut equals boo! - with a comically contrived premise. That premise is Esther (the very self-possessed Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan with a penetrating gaze whom John and Kate adopt with surprising swiftness and the wary blessings of a nun (C C H Pounder).
The new child is meant to take the place of the stillborn fetus who haunts Kate, though alas only metaphorically, a conceit that implies that adoptees are like replacement puppies. Whatever the case, Esther is more of a she-wolf, what with an exotic accent and predatory habits that suggest she worked for Spectre back in the motherland before landing in America as an undercover devil doll.
She has her evil way with the family, as expected, preying first on the other children. The young actors are very good and perform their parts more convincingly than Ms. Farmiga and especially Mr. Sarsgaard, but there's something creepy, and not pleasurably so, about watching children pantomime so much malice and fear.
Like some other directors who started out in commercials and music video, Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) appears to have lost a sense of narrative economy during his move from the small screen to the big. It's doubtful that he's entirely to blame - as unlived in as the house, the overly produced movie looks like an advertisement for the luxury car Kate drives - though you have to wonder about some of his camera choices. For one putatively crucial scene that finds Kate squawking into a phone, Mr. Collet-Serra inexplicably had someone point the camera toward the floor, a shift in focus that led me to think we were meant to find a clue in the carpeting when, really, all that had gone missing was a point of view.
Orphan is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Bloody violence, much of it directed at the young characters, and some kitchen-counter coitus interruptus.