Movies have been trying to tell us for years that children are inherently evil. From little Patty in The Bad Seed to Damian in The Omen, via Rosemary’s Baby and The Children of the Corn, there is an entire nursery of demon movie kids whose only purpose is to wreak havoc when brought into ordinary families.

Families like the Coleman’s in Orphan; Kate (Vera Farmiga), John (Peter Sarsgaard) and their two children, 10 year-old Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and adorable six year-old Max (Aryana Engineer), who was born deaf. In an effort to put the pain of a recent miscarriage behind them, Kate and John plan to adopt a third child. On a tour of a local orphanage, they meet little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), and strike up a rapport with the bright, intelligent child.

Russian-born Esther is unfailingly polite and immaculately turned out in Victorian pinafores with delicate frills. She paints with a talent beyond her years; naïve, faintly surreal canvases that cover her bedroom walls. She can sit down at a piano and belt out a lively Tchaikovsky number. So why, after only a few weeks in her new home, is her adoptive mother so scared of her? As the film’s poster proclaims, there is something wrong with Esther.

Bad things happen around the dark-eyed child with preternatural regularity. A school friend falls from a playground climbing frame, or a parked car rolls backwards down a steep hill. There is an unsettling air of examination in the child’s placid stare, and a queasy self-awareness in her eager innocence. Esther’s everyday conversations seem to carry a note of spiky threat or psychological cunning.

The Little Bo Peep outfits are one thing, but why does she insist on wearing thin black ribbons on her neck and wrists? And what’s with the tattered black Bible she carries everywhere? That can’t be good. When Kate begins to suspect that the source of all the family problems is the new cuckoo in the nest, she becomes a target for Esther’s devious manipulations.

is an effective and entertaining horror that generates enough old-fashioned dread to carry it through its many implausible moments. Although solid throughout, Farmiga and Sarsgaard are comprehensively out-acted by their much-younger co-stars, with newcomer Fuhrman in particular giving a delightfully mordant turn as the mini-monster.

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has never given any indication he had the talent to pull off a story like this in his previous films, the Paris Hilton-starring House of Wax and football sequel Goal II. Cleverly, rather than drown his story in flashy special effects, Collet-Serra relies on tried and trusted horror techniques, mostly played in-camera, to ratchet up the tension, topping the thrills with an audacious, elegantly played last-reel twist.

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