Time to Revisit… ‘Joshua’

The latest in my series taking a look at under-appreciated genre films puts the spotlight on George Ratliff’s evil-child flick Joshua, a 2007 indie that was unceremoniously dumped into 150 theaters by Fox Searchlight before quietly hitting the DVD market. As opposed to 2009′s similar Orphan, which enjoyed an illustrious wide release and considerable marketing push from Warner Bros., Joshua has been unjustly relegated to “also-ran” status despite the fact that it’s every bit as effective as its bigger-budgeted counterpart.

Take a trip with me now as I compare and contrast the two killer-tyke flicks (both starring Vera Farmiga!) and make a case for Joshua as a more than worthy entry in the enduring “bad seed” sub-genre that deserves a revisit.
Beloved Favorite: Orphan (2009)

Number of votes on IMDB: 32,949

The Plot: The 9-year-old adopted daughter of a suburban couple who recently lost a baby begins exhibiting sociopathic behavior.

Why it’s so celebrated: Ok, perhaps “celebrated” isn’t exactly the right adjective for Orphan (it’s a bit too early to make that pronouncement for a film that’s less than two years old), but it’s certainly well-liked by many horror fans and managed to rack up a decent $42 million at the domestic box-office and another $13 million or so in DVD sales. While it doesn’t hurt that the film was heavily-hyped by Warner Bros., it’s nevertheless a very good “evil child” flick, slickly executed by House of Wax director Jaume Collet-Serra and well-acted by leads Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard and newcomer Isabelle Fuhrman as the sadistic Esther. It’s also admired by hardcore horror buffs for not holding back on the violence, featuring as it does a couple of pretty nifty kills.

Why it’s time to back-burner it for awhile: I’m actually glad that Orphan got as much attention as it did – it’s a good film that more or less fulfilled the promise that Collet-Serra had earlier shown with his House of Wax remake. But with its big-budget studio marketing push, glossy production values and release in nearly 3,000 theaters, the film already had its moment in the sun. And besides, there’s another “demon-seed” movie starring Vera Farmiga that also deserves a little attention…

Underappreciated Also-Ran: Joshua (2007)

Number of votes on IMDB: 5,614

The Plot: The 9-year-old son of a big-city couple who recently welcomed a new baby begins exhibiting sociopathic behavior.

Why it’s not so celebrated: Unlike Orphan, Joshua is imbued with an art house sensibility that doesn’t make it a natural fit for mainstream audiences. Made independently by director George Ratliff and premiering at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, the film was picked up for a reported $4 million by Fox Searchlight, which then proceeded to dump it into 150 theaters or so before tossing it off onto DVD. While the film does have its fans and garnered generally positive reviews on release, it disappeared from theaters so quickly one could be forgiven for mistaking it as a direct-to-video title.

Why it deserves a revisiting: Joshua is a genuinely disturbing, understated gem that plays like a cerebral cousin of the more traditional Orphan (which, despite that nifty third-act twist, hits on all the standard tropes in its first 90 minutes). While the latter film essentially functions as a high-gloss rollercoaster ride, Joshua is a low-register mood piece that switches out Orphan‘s conventional histrionics for a deep sense of unease. The acting is first-rate, with newcomer Jacob Kogan giving a solid performance as the oddly-formal child prodigy with designs on his post-partum mother’s fragile state of mind. As his hapless parents, Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga create a devastating portrait of a well-to-do couple saddled with the taboo conundrum of feeling no real affection for their android-like son. Ratliff saturates the film with an atmosphere of almost suffocating anxiety, best exemplified in a disturbing piano recital scene that ends with Joshua’s eerily atonal rendition of childhood classic Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The supremely eerie final scene will stay with you for days.