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Notes on Camp: Orphan

Here's Ryan Thompson with "Notes on Camp!"

Notes on Camp: Orphan
DRINK: Moscow Mule

d’You know what’s hilarious? Children murdering adults! That’s why for the second edition of Notes on Camp (which I can’t believe I managed to get Ben to agree to make a regular column), I thought I’d bang out a few paragraphs about The Bad Seed, a 1956 melodrama about a pig-tailed sociopath, but a funny thing happened on the way to the interwebz. See, it’s hard to write about The Bad Seed without thinking about all the Evil Child movies that it influenced. Films like Village of the Damned, The Omen, and The Good Son all owe a debt to Patty McCormack’s Rhoda, a little ball of well behaved sunshine who also happens to murder people by beating them to death with her tap shoes. If you haven’t seen it, please stick it in your Netflix queue, because I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be writing about The Bad Seed, but rather a much more recent entry in the Evil Child genre, and one that owes much more to The Bad Seed’s conventions than the other films I mentioned: 2009’s criminally underseen (and BATSHIT CRAZY) Orphan.

Orphan has the same basic premise of The Bad Seed, although in this case the Evil Child is not an all-American Aryan schoolgirl like Rhoda, but a sort of Jewish looking Russian-y ex-pat named Esther that is adopted by recovering alcoholic Vera Farmiga and her husband Peter Saaaarsgaaaaaaard (sic). They have two kids already, a button-cute deaf daughter and an emo tween son, but after a harrowing miscarriage in the prologue they’ve decided to adopt – I guess because children should always come in threes. They go to an nun-run orphanage, and against the hilariously explicit foreshadowing of Head Nun Sister Abigail, decide to take home Esther, a preternaturally composed and artistically talented Eastern European 9-year-old who is obviously totally evil, evidenced by the ribbons tied daintily around her wrists and neck, and her predisposition for, like, killing everybody she comes into contact with.

The main reason to see Orphan is the go-for-broke performance of Isabelle Fuhrman as the titular character. If Rhoda is an angry kitten, Esther is a rampaging Siberian tiger in comparison. She kills animals with her bare hands, beats a nun to death with a hammer, makes an incestuous pass at her adopted father; and that’s not even half of it. The things they made this kid do and say are astounding and probably illegal, and that’s 80% of the Camp value of Orphan. Take this exchange, between Farmiga’s Kate and Fuhrman’s Esther after Esther has interrupted an intimate moment between her adopted parents:

Kate: When grownups love each other very, very much... they want to show each other that love… they want to express it...

Esther: I know. They fuck.

Kids these days! Amiright?! But that’s not the best of it. In order to get to that, a disclaimer: It’s incredibly difficult to discuss how awesome and Campy Orphan is without giving away its twist ending, which I am about to do. I encourage you to watch it first before you read this, since it is probably one of the most tasteless and ludicrous twists in recent film history, but I don’t blame you if you don’t. Anyway, if you want to remain pure, skip the next two paragraphs.

After Kate has been driven sufficiently crazy enough by Ester that her husband suspects she has relapsed back into alcoholism and has her hospitalized, Esther gets herself all dolled up in “mommy’s” makeup and skank-dress. Then the unthinkable happens: she initiates sex with Peter Saaaarsgaaaaaaard. When he rebuffs her, she retreats upstairs, removes the makeup, pulls out her fake teeth (!), unbinds her breasts (?!?!!) and… she is revealed to be a 33-year-old Estonian midget prostitute.

Go ahead and read that again. The ribbons around her wrists and neck have been covering straightjacket scars (which is a thing?), and the orphanage is really a mental institution that she escaped from. She had been a high-end hooker for wealthy pedophiles, and then found it more lucrative to con her way into unsuspecting American families via Catholic adoption agencies, because, as most 9-year-old Estonian orphans will tell you, those assholes will fall for anything. It’s almost unfair to call this a twist, since really nothing in the movie so far has given us any indication that Esther is anything more than an overly malicious third-grader. Twists rely upon clues cleverly placed by the filmmakers, and Orphan gives zero. One minute you’re watching a movie about a maladjusted immigrant playing mind games with her mentally unstable mother, and the next thing you know, a deaf 6-year-old is trying to shoot a midget hooker with a semi-automatic. These things happen.

YOU CAN START READING AGAIN: Is Orphan true Camp? Only time will tell. I feel like it’s meant as a straight up horror/thriller, and it is vaguely effective in certain places. The acting is certainly better than in most Camp oddities, and the production values are high. Esther’s attempts at undermining Farmiga and Saaaarsgaaaaaaard’s marriage by playing them against one another are certainly disturbing, and if it had stopped there, I might not be writing about it for this column. But then, well, that ending…

Its’ Metacritic score sits at a rather comfortable 42, which means critics liked it, but didn’t really want to admit it (save for the ever-dependable Roger Ebert, who gave it 3 ½ stars. Perhaps Orphan’s finest review comes from the amusingly named Anne Hornaday at The Washington Post, who refers to it in her article as a “depraved, worthless piece of filth”. She also uses the words “sadistic”, “pedophilia”, and “child abuse”, which I will not refute – I guess my standards are just lower. One of Camp’s unsung characteristics is the ability to piss people off. When you throw down your ten bucks for a ticket at the multiplex, you have a certain set of expectations; expectations that Orphan wantonly disregards at every available opportunity. It is exactly the movie you want to find on cable when you didn’t make plans on a Saturday night, but got drunk anyway. Did I mention a key plot point involves secret black light posters?

There is indeed something wrong with Esther, but her faults are so gleefully, absurdly twisted, it’s really hard to hold it against her.

-Ryan

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Notes on Camp: Orphan + thriller