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August 2, 2009

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Evil frights with a new twist

ESTHER is unfailingly polite, a sensitive painter and pianist, a vision of traditional feminine charm in prim dresses and bows.

But this nine-year-old also has a way with a hammer and a handgun and knows a thing or two about arson and destruction of evidence.

Yes, she's complicated, the little girl at the center of "Orphan," a descendant from a long line of cinematic evil children. Still, despite similarities to predecessors like "The Bad Seed" and "The Omen," this well-crafted flick has frights all its own.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, working from a devilishly clever script by David Leslie Johnson, maintains steady suspense while mercifully mixing in some moments of dark humor.

He's got a strong cast to work with in Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard and CCH Pounder (Claudette from "The Shield"), but in young Isabelle Fuhrman (pictured in two guises above), he has a formidable force.

Fuhrman, who was just 11 when she shot "Orphan," can command the screen with just a sunny smile or a menacing glare. She's called on to do some gnarly stuff here and more than rises to the challenge.

Sure, sometimes Esther seems like an unstoppable killing machine - like a spy in a pint-size body - but seeing how far "Orphan" will go is part of the fun.

Farmiga and Sarsgaard star as Kate and John, a wealthy Connecticut couple reeling from the stillbirth of their third child.

Wanting to give all that love to a child who needs it, they decide to adopt the Russian-born Esther, who's obviously more than a little different from the other girls at the orphanage.

Pounder plays the nun who arranges the adoption. Still, that's much of the allure in their eyes, that she is her own person.

When the couple brings her home, their son, Danny (Jimmy Bennett), immediately feels threatened by her. He has no idea how right he is. But their other daughter, Max, takes to her and looks up to her as a big sister.

The character is hearing-impaired, as is the actress playing her, Aryana Engineer, who expresses so much emotion by just widening her eyes or scrunching down to hide amid her toys.

She's adorable but also crucial to showing us just how rotten Esther truly is. Soon, accidents start occurring, flare-ups at school and on the playground, and Esther always happens to be around.

Kate grows suspicious but John frustratingly fails to believe her, the product of lingering mistrust because of her previous alcoholism and irresponsibility.

Then again, Esther's so sweetly manipulative, she's hard to resist.But she also brings believability to Kate's inner demons, which are so relevant to the way she responds to the increasingly dangerous Esther.

But of course there has to be an explanation for her behavior, and it comes in the form of a twist.

You won't see it coming, but this revelation - and the disturbing images of the climactic chaos Esther causes - will probably leave you with a sleepless night.


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