To fill the void left by the stillbirth of their third child, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine-year-old orphan from Russia. Artistic and intelligent, Esther is clearly a girl of many talents. Unfortunately they include deception, manipulation and murder. Shredding nerves and plausibility to presposterously entertaining effect, House Of Wax remaker Jaume Collet-Serra rides another psychological seesaw of daftness and dread.
Doing for adoption what Lehman Brothers did for the global economy, Orphan proves once again that there's nothing scarier than a pallid schoolkid with jet black hair. And a grudge.
As well as treading in the demonically small footsteps of The Omen and The Ring, Spanish director Collet-Serra (who, let's not forget, gave the world Paris Hilton's secondmost downloaded oral moment in 2005's House Of Wax) also borrows from every distraught married couple/psycho-in-the-house thriller from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Fatal Attraction to Don't Look Now.
Collet-Serra signals his intentions early, dressing beetle-browed Esther like those spooky twins from The Shining and having orphanage head Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) roll her eyes when the recently bereaved Colemans decide to take her home.
Despite her quaint dress sense, this doll from Russia is obviously very clever. Her English is perfect, her painting is brilliant and she immediately masters sign language, thus winning over her new little sister Max (hearing-impaired newcomer Aryana Engineer).
But brother Danny (Jimmy Bennett) is unimpressed. And after troubling episodes involving two cases of coitus Esther-uptus, a smartypants schoolmate, and the disappearance of busybody Sister Abigail (hammer time!), Kate gradually twigs that her foster daughter is somewhere mid witch and cuckoo.
She's a bit like something from the sales: looks good in the shop but starts to unravel as soon as you get it home. Then you read the no returns policy.
With John taking Esther's side at every turn, the little minx stops at nothing to put mommy out of the picture, preying on her every weakness (the alcohol problem; the dead baby; John's one-time affair) while simultaneously terrorising Danny and making an accomplice of Max.
She really is a horror.
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Orphan is a pot-boiler of titanic silliness. No movie of this ilk should ever run to two hours.
Remarkably, though, Collet-Serra manages to sustain tension throughout, prudently deploying his jumps and jolts and pumping up the grue factor. So while it often prompts hoots of derision, they're often choked off with a vice-tight wince.
There's no getting round the fact that Sarsgaard's John is a blinkered chump, but Farmiga heroically negotiates the plotholes to show the grit and range she was denied as DiCaprio's wishy-washy shrink in Scorsese's The Departed.
The real revelation is Fuhrman, who scores a perfect 666 for her deliciously psychotic and eerily mature performance.
She's evidently heard what they say about fosters. Best served chilled.