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Ohio native penned horror movie ‘Orphan’

Posted by GoreMaster Special Effects on July 31, 2009

OrphanMansfield News Journal staff

Since Patty McCormack’s murderess Rhoda Penmark in “The Bad Seed” in the 1950s, the horror movie subgenre featuring wicked kids has been scaring people no matter their age.

Now comes “Orphan,” by screenwriter David Leslie Johnson, who broke into the movie business in his hometown of Mansfield.

He began his career as a production assistant on director Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption.” The 1994 movie, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, was filmed at the historic Ohio State Reformatory, where Johnson’s great-grandfather had once worked as a prison guard.

In an interview Tuesday with DailyActor.com, the 1988 Lexington High School grad said he spent the next five years as Darabont’s assistant, using the opportunity to hone his craft as a screenwriter.

Johnson is a fan of “The Bad Seed,” the 1956 Academy Award-nominated film in which a pigtailed schoolgirl turns out to be a sociopath, killing a classmate, a neighbor and a teasing janitor with relish. Adopted, Rhoda’s bad behavior turns out to be genetic — her mother was a well-known serial killer.

“There’s just something really primal in that mother-child relationship,” Johnson says, “so I felt like that was really the best relationship to exploit and corrupt, to take what should be the most natural bond in the world and turn them into enemies.”

In “Orphan,” Isabelle Fuhrman stars as Esther, who comes across as the perfect child — until she smashes a bird’s head and forces a nun to drive off a snowy road. That’s just for starters.

In many of the evil-child films, the father is absent or bamboozled by his precious kid; it’s left to the mother to come to the slow realization about her offspring.

Johnson follows suit with “Orphan”: Vera Farmiga’s character — troubled by The Bad Seedalcoholism, a miscarriage and guilt over the near death of her deaf daughter — figures out there’s something wrong with Esther. Peter Sarsgaard as the father doubts his wife because of her past unreliability and is quite taken in by his adopted child.

Johnson has a special bond with his mother as well — she turned him on to Hitchcock when he was growing up, and “Psycho” was one of their favorite movies.

“My parents were great — I had a completely normal childhood. Everything was fine, I’ve just been a fan of the horror genre and read a lot of Stephen King,” he told DigitalCity.com recently. “I’ve always been fascinated with dark subject matter.”

The local native developed his interest in storytelling as a child, writing plays as early as the second grade. A later interest in film led him, at age 19, to write his first screenplay. He has a fine arts degree from The Ohio State University. In 1999, Johnson wrote an adaptation of the classic Doc Savage pulp novels. Johnson then wrote a miniseries sequel to John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which brought him to the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, for which he wrote “Orphan.” He’s teaming up with Appian Way again for one of several developing projects — an epic horror and fantasy inspired by a classic fairy tale. Johnson’s next project will be an adaptation of the Australian ghost story thriller “Lake Mungo.”

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