Tag Archives: John Ballard

The Orphan (1979)

orphan

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Oppressive aunt dominates kid.

David (Dan Owens) is a child of around 10 growing-up in the 1920’s who witnesses his mother (Joanna Miles) die a violent death and then later has to deal with his father’s untimely death as well.  His Aunt Martha (Peggy Fleury), who was the sister of David’s mother and who also had a secret affair with his father (Donn Whyte) years before, moves into the home and takes over as his adoptive parent. Since she had no children of her own she doesn’t know how to communicate with kids and instead lays down a lot of rules that David doesn’t like and pushes him into a make-believe world. He spends most of his time in an old backyard chicken coop where he talks to a stuffed monkey that he believes holds power and can make changes in his life for the better particularly when it comes to his aunt.

This film’s biggest claim-to-fame was its original title which was Friday the 13th: The Orphan and the producers of the Friday the 13th movie, which was filming around the same time that this one was released, feared it would get confused with theirs and thus went into negotiations to get the title changed. It was anticipated at that time that this one would do better as it took more of an old-fashioned approach to horror by working-off of atmosphere, imagery, and mood while the other one was an all-out slasher, which was still considered to be a fringe genre that would only attract small, select audience. Instead that one became a huge hit while this one fell into virtual obscurity.

For the most part I though it was an interesting and while not completely successful does have its moments. The pacing is indeed off especially during the first act where nothing much happens and there’s few if any frights, which made me start to wonder if it was even a horror movie at all, but it gets handled well on the technical end and I remained intrigued enough to keep watching. Things did improve by the second act and there’s a few creepy nightmare segments including David’s vision, captured with a fish-eye camera lens, of entering an orphanage, which is visually unnerving and I wondered if possibly writer/director John Ballard was going back to his own childhood experiences and the dark memories that he harbored as these scenes start to seem quite personal.

The acting by the kid is phenomenal. Usually child actors, even if they’re good, aren’t quite up to carrying a movie, but Owens does and I was surprised to find that he’s never appeared in any others as I felt he was talented enough to have a memorable career. He has, with his overbite, a creepy look about him and very much resembles, Ike Eisenmann, another famous child actor from the 70’s. However, I wasn’t sure if finding a kid that gave-off a scary vibe right away was necessarily the right move as the horror might’ve been more effective had he seemed cute and precocious initially, and someone the viewer could like, only to have, as a surprise twist, the dark elements come out later versus telegraphing it from the beginning.

Spoiler Alert!

There are a couple of good murders, but you’re going to have to wait until literally almost the very end to see them. The plot is also heavy-handed as it’s obvious that there’s going to be an ultimate clash between the kid and the aunt and endlessly dragging-it-out to where the viewer knows  where it’s headed, but takes its sweet time to get there, gets a bit frustrating. I also didn’t understand why the story had to take place in the 1920’s as I didn’t think it added anything and could’ve easily been set in the modern day and the attempts to make it seem like a period piece, especially on a low budget, doesn’t completely work.

Also, the plot synopsis in IMDb for this movie is inaccurate. It describes the kid as having ‘horrific headaches’, which he believes ‘make him commit murders’, but in the print I saw, which as supposedly the uncut, extended version there was no talk about headaches, or even observing him having one.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 10, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes (Extended Cut)

Rated R

Director: John Ballard

Studio: Cinema Investments Company

Available: DVD-R (j4hi.com, dvdlady.com)