Now in theaters
Peter Sarsgaard as John
Vera Farmiga as Kate
Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
I know what you guys are thinking. 9 out of 10? Well, before you start in with the hate, please keep reading so you’ll understand why I think this movie deserves it.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (the man behind the disappointing House of Wax remake) and produced by Joel Silver and Leonardo DiCaprio (no joke!), this film is riding a huge wave of promo buzz into theaters, but the consensus I’m getting from the horror community is that the film looks terrible and is probably going to suck big time. I went into the screening thinking the exact same thing, not being very excited to see what I expect to be a by-the-numbers crazy kid story. At best it would be a remake of The Bad Seed, but at worst it would be a ripoff of The Good Son. Well, I’m here to tell you that from minute one this film delivers on all levels.
Kate (played by the lovely Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (comfortably portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard) are thinking about adopting a kid after losing their third child in labor. They meet Esther, a sweet angelic-faced little orphan girl from Russia and are instantly impressed with her. A month later, she comes to live at the Coleman house and things start to go wrong. Kate, who spends the most time with Esther, starts to realize something is not quite Kosher with their new “daughter” and the more she pries into Esther’s past the more tense and dangerous things get for her and her loved ones. I’ll stop right there, because if ever there was a movie that needs you to come into it knowing as little as possible, this one’s it.
Yes, the film is your basic horror-mystery plot, but there are new elements that separate this film from the current crop of horror and makes it an old-school horror show. The first and most important thing is the character work. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of presenting Kate and John not just as a real couple with real problems and issues, but as real, flesh and blood human beings. The reason The Exorcist works so well is because we get to know the family as regular folks before Pazuzu gets freaky with Regan. As a parent, the scenes involving Kate’s unborn child were personally gut-wrenching but the emotion (parent or not) will instantly make you fall in love with the character, which means we are hooked on to her and the others for the remainder of the ride. This is important because when something terrible happens, and lots of shocking, I-can’t-believe-they-did-that terrible moments do occur, they affect us on a higher level because we honestly care about these people. When’s the last time you actually cared about a horror movie character?
The second thing that makes this film so refreshing is its pacing. This is definitely a slow-burn type of film, but what a way to burn! At about the halfway point the film kicks into high gear and the tension mounts steadily into a satisfying and dizzying climax. Don’t get me wrong, the first half of the film isn’t boring by any stretch of the imagination, but it does play out like an indie family drama and this works well because the material is so strong and the characters themselves are so compelling that you don’t need to be hit over the head with a scare every second (did you hear that Grudge movies?). That being said, Collet-Serra employs some tricky camera angles and some brilliant sound design that help elicit a number of jumps that actually work. No cat in the trash can here, folks.
The third thing that makes this film so unique, and I sort of just touched on this, is the brilliantly understated but confident directing by Collet-Serra. Sure there are cool shots and scenes done in one master take which harken back to Kurosawa days, but there’s more to it than the image on the celluloid. In one scene Kate is reading to her youngest daughter Max, who happens to be deaf, and the whole scene is played silent as Kate reads the story to us with sign language. The story they’ve chosen is apparently one they read a lot and it has to do with a little girl who never got to meet her little baby sister that ended up in heaven. This is a beautiful and touching scene, and in someone else’s hands the scene probably wouldn’t have been silent and by removing that element the scene would have lost the perfection it achieves. It manages to create an incredible bond between the characters and between us. We are linked to them now, at this special moment in time, because we are no longer spectators watching a movie, we are participating in a very sweet and private moment between mother and daughter. We become part of the family. Their well being becomes our well being.
The reason the film gets a 9 and not a 10 is due to Esther. While young actress Isabelle Fuhrman does a fine job of looking cute and cuddly one minute then mean and caustic the next, the filmmakers decided to make Esther from Russia which means Fuhrman must put on a thick accent. I don’t know much about this little girl, she may be Russian but she certainly does a fine job of sticking to the accent and not making it too outlandish. The problem is that she sounds like Chekov from Star Trek and sometimes her dialog can come off a bit silly, taking the edge off of her character. I think the accent was a bad idea, but Fuhrman is a very talented actress. I’m just glad they didn’t have her saying “Enemy vessels, Captain.” Incidentally, Kate’s oldest son Daniel is played by Jimmy Bennett who was young Kirk in the new Star Trek movie.
A lot of people complain about remakes and the dearth of original horror in the world today. Well, here it is, folks, and its actually quite amazing. Think of this as basically Bundy Begins or The Young Ed Gein Chronicles (these aren’t real movies, by the way) directed like an indie drama and featuring some fantastic, nerve-rattling tension with stand-up-and-cheer excitement and you’ll have a pretty good idea what you’ll be in store for. There’s also a nice, acidic little surprise twist at the end that you won’t be able to see coming, and it actually works. Usually a surprise ending will just sink a movie with its utter ridiculousness (The Village or Lady in the Water come to mind), but this time it fits like a glove and enhances the film to the point that you actually have to watch it again to see what you missed.
I was utterly surprised by this movie, an old-fashioned adult horror film with some great bloody bits and outstanding performances. It’s presented modestly without the dreaded MTV editing curse, and delivers a solid, heart-pounding ride. But most of all it’s fun. Not since Drag Me To Hell have I had so much fun at the movies this year, so I hope you’ll adopt (get it?) this attitude and give this unique horror thriller a watch.