The biggest comedy hit of the summer might turn out to be not about a disturbed gay fashionista from Europe in creepy makeup, but about a disturbed little girl from Eastern Europe in even creepier makeup.
At a recent screening of “Orphan,” about a child who tries to murder her adopted family, the packed audience howled with laughter much more than they jumped from fright. They didn't laugh at the scares, either, but in anticipation of them, mostly at getting to know Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), an odd orphan adopted by John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga), who are trying to replace a child they lost.
Esther demonstrates precocious talents, at painting, piano, new languages, blackmail, murder and general skulduggery. She's the very picture of the perfect child at first, only gradually demonstrating evidence of the terror that everyone staring at the screen knows will eventually emerge. She gets most of the big laughs, too, but almost always for violent or sexual reasons unfit to print in a family publication, which made people laugh all the harder because they came from a youngster.
Esther begins turning members of the family against one another and bumping off others who get in her way, though you probably didn't need to be told any of this. Going in, everyone pretty much knows what's going to happen, which is the point. The audience, or some of it, enjoys knowing, getting its expectations gratuitously satisfied.
Humor in horror movies was less overt back in the early 1930s when James Whale simultaneously mocked the frights he was creating in “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man.” Something entirely different is going on with movies such as “Orphan,” which is more akin to a funhouse ride through society's sense of decency. It's concocted with expert appreciation of self-parodying clichAc, but looking at just one of the more crowd-pleasing moments — a prepubescent girl in makeup trying to seduce her father — a viewer might be inclined to wonder: How far are we willing to go for cheap laughs? (R) 123 min. HHIII S