Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) is heavily pregnant and going into labour, so it's lucky her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) has taken her to the hospital. However, not anywhere near as lucky is when she begins bleeding profusely and when she is taken into the operating theatre the staff have to break it to her through her incredible pain that the baby has died - and push the infant's body into her face to show her. But they didn't really do that, Kate was having one of the nightmares that she has been suffering, and they have only increased with her anxiety at John's suggestion that they adopt... but that's nothing compared to what happens when they do.
Orphan was one of those evil child horrors that intermittently appeared on the movie radar, and had done ever since The Bad Seed had been such a hit back in the nineteen-fifties. Here our creepy kid was one Russian orphan called Esther, played with scary self-assurance by Isabelle Fuhrman, who Kate and John discover when visiting a children's home with a view to adopting, something Kate needs a lot of coaxing to do. But John is charmed by the little girl, who seems like a lonely soul in need of a good home; to say this probably put the case for adoption back about a century would be putting it mildly if anyone took it seriously.
Thanks to that ending which became slightly infamous after enough people had opted to give the film a chance, it could be that Orphan seemed better than it was, proving that maxim of Roger Corman's that all you needed for this kind of thing was a strong opening and a strong ending, thereby letting the rest take care of itself. Yet while this does grow very silly indeed, it is presented with such a straight face that you're willing to go along with it, especially as when you find out what is really going on it is a genuine surprise as even if you had an inkling of what was happening you wouldn't expect the film to actually go through with that. Not after its would-be chilling build up at any rate.
Naturally, movies like this have a campy quality often foisted upon them by a section of the audience unwilling to take the story in the spirit of horror, but there are signs that the makers were aware that they were skirting close to being ridiculous. Certainly there were a few good laughs after we're assured that the little girl is not one to be felt sorry for, as up till the halfway mark (and this is a surprisingly long film for a shocker such as this), we're uncertain if we should be sad for Esther and her idiosyncratic mannerisms that make her the target of bullies. After she deliberately pushes one of those bullies off the top of a slide at a playpark, we start to wonder if we haven't been taken in by her apparent innocence as much as everyone else has.
Well, everyone except Kate, who after being as nice as nice can be to the child, begins suspecting that all is not right here. She's not as suspicious as her two kids, the deaf mute girl Max (Aryana Engineer), and the older Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), both of whom see evidence of their new "sister" acting strangely: seeing a nine-year-old girl commit murder can bring out a degree of doubt in a person as to her moral character. But this is a film about manipulation, and our diminutive villainess - superbly played or superbly directed, or maybe both - can wrap people around her little finger to persuade them innocents she does not like are in fact as wicked as she is in actuality. It's a slow ascent to the lunatic revelation at the finale, but worth sticking with as its cheek is quite something, and if it then turns into every slasher movie ending you've ever seen, you do admire the gall of the enterprise. Music by John Ottman.