You know you're dealing with pure evil when puffy dresses, a child's painting, and a dozen white roses strike fear into your heart. So enters Esther, the star of the movie Orphan, a horror film that's seemingly been forgotten in the decade since its 2009 release. At first glance, it's easy to write off the film as just another evil child horror flick, but on a second watch, you begin to realize that director Jaume Collet-Serra knew how to create the terror of finding out that evil is in your own home.
With plenty of gore, an all-star cast, and the twistiest of twist endings, Orphan really does deserve a second chance. With a prequel reportedly in the works, it's the perfect time to unpack what makes Orphan worth remembering.
The shock value of any good horror film ultimately hinges on a twist ending. Just think of classics like Psycho and A Nightmare on Elm Street, which rely on their twists to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Orphan offers the surprising twist of not being a horror movie about an orphan at all, but about a grown woman pretending to be a child.
We find out that 9-year-old Esther is actually 33-year-old Lena Klammer, who escaped from an institution in Russia, then came to America under the guise of being a sweet little girl in need of a family. Realizing that this woman is able to manipulate so many other adults is perhaps the most horrifying element of the film.
Esther seems so innocent in her crinoline-lined dresses and silk ribbons, but something about her ensemble manages to make the hair on the back of our necks stand on end. When considering what it is about some ribbons and bows that leave us so unsettled, it's worth taking a little walk down traumatic childhood memory lane to the story of "The Green Ribbon," by Alvin Schwartz and Dirk Zimmer.
The story goes that a boy and girl fall in love, then marry as adults, but the woman will never tell her husband why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck. When she is about to perish, she tells her husband to remove the green ribbon, and once he does - you guessed it - her head falls off. While Esther's head stays on when she removes one of the many collars she wears throughout the film, what she's hiding beneath is just as terrifying.
Horror films like The Conjuring and The Amityville Horror are well known for being based on allegedly true events, but Orphan came out a year before an Indiana couple adopted a 6-year-old orphan named Natalia Grace, and strange parallels between a real-life situation and the film began to emerge. Michael and Kristine Barnett adopted Natalia Grace when she was said to be 6 years old in 2010. Kristine became suspicious of Natalia when the little girl began exhibiting strange behavior, and Kristine questioned whether or not Natalia was even a child. Kristine said Natalia would threaten her adopted mother and put bleach in her coffee. Bone-density tests performed by a family doctor stated that Natalia had a form of dwarfism and that she was allegedly actually 22 years old. The Barnetts claimed that they were concerned for their safety and the safety of their biological children, and decided to move to Canada and leave Natalia behind.
After Natalia reported to the police that her family abandoned her in 2013, a full investigation ensued, and the Barnetts were both charged with felony neglect. It's now reported that Natalia, who was actually a child at the time, is now only 16, and was taken in by another family in 2016. The trial of Michael and Kristine Barnett began on January 28, 2020.
Perhaps part of what makes Orphan so terrifying is the idea that it's not outside of the realm of possibility.
Who doesn't feel sympathy for an orphaned child? It's something that touches all of our lives in some way, shape, or form, so we've been conditioned to sympathize with a character like Esther. At least at first.
While we know that something won't be quite right with Esther, it's nearly impossible to dislike her right out of the gate. The free pass ends, however, when she starts terrorizing her new family, and all bets are off once we find out that she isn't even a child. The slow burn of Esther's true identity is perhaps what leaves us in endless suspense throughout the film's two-hour run time. And the idea of Kate fighting against an orphaned child forces us to question how she could possibly win.