RATING |

Esther is a godsend.

So it seems to her new parents, John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard) and his wife, Kate (Vera Farmiga), at the start of Jaume Collet-Serra's immaculately plotted and photographed chiller, Orphan, one of the best entries in the cute-as-a-button-psycho-demon-child-from-hell subgenre.

A beautiful 9-year-old Russian-born orphan, Esther is the perfect cure for the traumatized couple, whose marriage has taken a few body blows, including the death of their unborn child.

Esther fits right in with her new siblings, the sometimes surly prepubescent Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and the radiant Max (Aryana Engineer), a profoundly deaf 5-year-old girl who falls under Esther's thrall.

What's not to love? Esther creates extraordinary, sophisticated paintings. And she shocks Kate, a pianist, with a masterful rendition of Tchaikovsky.

But Esther is a bit off. She dresses like a Victorian doll, complete with a ribbon in her hair. And what's with the creepy black ribbons around her neck and wrists?

Collet-Serra, whose eye for design was evident in his debut - the inferior, if fun, gorefest House of Wax - incrementally cranks up the creep factor. He also manages to add clever nods to earlier classics, including The Innocents, Don't Look Now, The Omen, and The Changeling.

Soon enough, Kate and the kids figure out that Esther is a manipulative sociopath. (A name like Lilith seems more appropriate.) She's a succubus who robs the family of human warmth and love.

The always brilliant Farmiga, who turned up the emotional volume to 11 as the suicidal mom in the 2007 psycho-child melodrama Joshua, gives a more subtle turn as Kate, an alcoholic who quit drinking after losing her Yale professorship and nearly killing Max in an accident.

Sarsgaard, who seems incapable of bad acting, is solid in the thankless role of the rube taken in by Esther's serpentine wiles.

But the suspense thriller's success is due to its titular star, Isabelle Fuhrman, 12, whose remarkably mature, eerie performance puts to shame every kid who's taken on the psycho-killer mantle.

Orphan, with a perverse plot twist at the end, will keep you on tenterhooks from its nightmarish opening scene to its chilling last frame.

Orphan *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. With Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 mins.

Parent's guide: R (Violence, profanity, brief nudity, mature themes, psycho-killer child).

Playing at: area theaters.EndText

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.