If there is one terrible legacy left to us by filmmaking in the '90s, it is the notion of the twist-dependent thriller. After the critical (and box office) success of such films as The Usual Suspects, Lone Star, The Crying Game, and especially The Sixth Sense, films that were constructed entirely around a single, mind-bending, story-changing twist became a hip and interesting way to tell a story. The big GOTCHA! of it, however, left classic storytelling to fall by the wayside, and films often began to rely solely upon the element of surprise to shock an audience into loving a film. Unfortunately, as audiences have become wise to this, twists have become easier to predict -- so rather than falling back upon classic storytelling techniques, some filmmakers have simply turned to wilder, more audacious twists.
Such is the case with this summer's dismal failure, Orphan. Built upon one big, shocking idea, Orphan actually proves to be a sad casualty of this phenomenon. You see, from the get-go, Orphan is actually a pretty good movie. It is a slow-burn horror/thriller very much in the vein of films like George C. Scott's Changeling or The Omen or The Amityville Horror. Beginning first as a family drama, the high-tension story begins to bleed into something far more bizarre and twisted as we learn that something is wrong with Esther, the Cleman family's new adopted daughter -- a girl who at first seems just a little different proves instead to be VERY different, and possibly even dangerous.
Despite its laughable trailer and advertising, the film is excellently paced, wonderfully acted, and spot-on at building tension. As things go from bad to worse, you see how readily this family is put through the ringer and how aptly this seemingly demonic little girl puts them through it. And then like a bolt from the blue, the twist finally reveals itself. DUN DUN DUN! And the movie immediately falls apart. But not in the way you think. While many will find the twist to be ridiculous -- and really, it kind of is -- it is not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the story perfectly supports it. I had figured it out early on in the film -- mostly because I was watching for a ridiculous twist, spurned on by filmmaker/industry friends who knew of the twist long before seeing the film and often asked, "You wanna know what it is?" I didn't. But figuring it out, I watched as the entire film set the twist up and supported it in every way.
And sadly I watched as the filmmakers, satisfied that the audience was reeling from the twist, put the remainder of the story on autopilot and let it coast through the last 20 minutes of the film. From the moment of the big reveal, the film becomes a standard, by the numbers, cliched Hollywood thriller the likes of which you can set your watch to. It was embarrassing, a film that had struggled so hard to be moody and different reduced to the kind of crap you leave on in the background while vacuuming without missing a single salient detail.
Not surprisingly, the DVD is being released without much fanfare or an abundance of special features. The menu gives you two options: watch the film or check out the deleted scenes, including -- and they are really pushing this all over the box -- the "chilling alternate ending." This amounts to just over four minutes of deleted material, none of it relevant, with two minutes devoted to what would be an almost completely inexplicable ending that I'm not 100% certain fits into the story. It's not a radical change to the film, but changes the ending in a way that would require additional scenes to explain. It feels entirely incomplete and will most likely cause confusion, rather than offer a potentially better ending than the lackluster one provided in the final film.
Ultimately, Orphan proves to be a frustrating film that could have offered a unique horror vision and instead fell into the rut of typical thriller-itis.
Orphan is available now from Warner Home Video.