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Stars: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Margo Martindale

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Laugh-a-minute chiller, full of false shocks and interminable elongation of suspense scenes.

The plot is really too silly, but I'll try: traumatised by a phantom pregnancy and an accident to her young daughter Maxie (Aryana Engineer) that left the child unable to speak (or hear much), ex-alcoholic piano teacher Kate (Farmiga) reluctantly decides to adopt. Since she already has two children, it's not clear why, but anyway she and her husband John (Sarsgaard) turn up at St Mariana's, an orphanage run by Sister CCH Pounder, whose kindly features are momentarily troubled when John is attracted to nine-year-old Russian-born Esther (Fuhrman), her singing and advanced artwork.

Hardened horror fans will instantly recognise Esther as the demon child from hell. Kate and John, however, are taken in, and soon Esther and her menacingly enigmatic smile are installed in their state-of-the-art home.

She quickly drives a wedge between them, cosies up to Maxie and insists on dresses that cover her neck and arms. Pupils who mock her at school are found with broken ankles, a pigeon is mercilessly crushed to death after her stepbrother Danny (Jimmy Bennett) has hit it with a paintball, and the same fate awaits Sister Pounder after she pays the family an anxious visit.

Mom has early on smelled a rat but, absurdly, no one believes her, presumably because of her former drinking problem! A scene in which a psychiatrist (Martindale) and John side against her and suggest she go back to rehab was rightly greeted by a preview audience with hoots of derision.

Meanwhile Esther has silenced Danny, who saw her after the Pounder killing, and invites Maxie to play Russian roulette. After Kate gets in touch with Russian and Estonian authorities (and Danny is nearly burnt to death in his tree-house), she learns the awful truth (which I can't reveal) and there's a final confrontation between Kate and Esther which is actually quite exciting.

It would be more in keeping with the film's tenor, however, if Kate had been put away at the end, while Maxie ended up in an ophanage. Little Fuhrman, who bears some resemblance to the young Elizabeth Taylor, follows direction well as she appears impassively behind people or in doorways. She is the real star of this overlong and truly ridiculous film.

David Quinlan

Canada/USA 2009. UK Distributor: Optimum (Warner Brothers/Dark Castle). Technicolor.
123 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 02 Aug 2009