By Aaron Mesh

Little girls with long black hair get a bum rap at the movies this week. Little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the 9-year-old wayward youth in the title role of Orphan, may be a standard horror-flick bad seed, but she relishes her own wickedness—just as the movie seems intoxicated by its inevitable future as midnight-screening schlock. The girl and the picture both succeed by taking familiar setups to demented extremes.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra opens Orphan with an extraordinarily gruesome third-trimester miscarriage—a signal that the movie will be pitching hardball. Then there's some brief, dull exposition regarding Kate and John's (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) desire to adopt a third child into their house. Despite a skeptical look from a supervisory nun (CCH Pounder), they select Esther, who is Russian, very attached to her Bible and dresses like she's on her way to a homeschooling convention.

The girl turns out to be highly precocious. She has an extensive vocabulary. She is an expert pianist. She pulverizes an injured pigeon with a rock. "Eet's all right," she says. "Eet's een heeven now."

Most of Orphan proceeds from a child's ruthlessly vindictive morality, a desire to punish adults for their failure to meet narrow expectations. Of course, that's the unspoken rule of all horror movies—why else do the teenagers get killed every time they have sex? But Orphan is self-aware about these tropes and toys with them: The offending sexual play is between the married parents and is witnessed by the tiny villain as a primal scene. Very good, also, are several sequences in which Esther takes advantage of another child's deafness, stealing her hearing aids so misbehavior is seen but not heard.

I don't mean to suggest that Orphan is a drama of family disintegration on par with, say, Ordinary People. Its scenes of domestic paranoia and postpartum hysteria are probably the least interesting things in the movie. (Farmiga also tends to drag the picture down with her plodding devotion to Serious Acting.) Instead, Orphan works best when it recognizes itself as a malicious comedy, drops any facade of respectability and turns into a battle of bitches, with one of them underage and armed with Mother Russia righteousness.

Orphan revels in fulfilling and exceeding expectations. "You'll never guess her secret," the advertisements promise—and I must admit I did not, although I unwittingly scribbled it in my notes while trying to describe Esther's fashion sense. Of course, you knew Orphan was filled with diabolical revelations. But who could have guessed they would be revealed in black light as lewd dayglow paintings? You knew it was implausible. But who expected it to hang together with such bizarre conviction, like a grind house Let the Right One In? You knew it was stupid. But who guessed it would be this much crazy fun?

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
With Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard and CCH Po

Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
123 min., R