Orphan: First Kill isn’t as gripping as the original film, but its self-aware tone helps make this prequel better than one might expect.
When it was first released back in 2009, many critics bashed and took down Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan because they thought the movie felt like a “parody of horror clichés”, with its twist catching people by surprise or leaving them downright baffled. One critic even called it a “depraved, worthless piece of filth”. However, as time passed, horror fans around the world kind of warmed up to it, in the same way they did with Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, which was also released that same year. Both became cult classics of sorts for this modern generation. They are not the best films in the world, but both are highly enjoyable, with the right combination of spooks and rude behavior, as well as drenching the screen in the occasional crimson red. I actually like them quite a bit because, in some ways, upon their release, they were promoting a takedown of the genre-filmmaking aesthetics and conventions developing in the late 2000s.
The original Orphan was about a married couple that adopted a nine-year-old with a troubled past, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), whose previous parents died in a horrific house fire. Why did they adopt her? Because the mother in the family lost her stillborn baby and wanted to fill the hole in her broken heart in some way, shape, or form. However, Esther had secrets of their own. *Spoiler warning for Orphan (2009): Esther isn’t actually a kid; she’s a thirty-year-old woman with a gland disease that makes her look younger than she is.*
Many years have passed since Orphan’s release, and plenty of people were asking for a possible sequel of sorts. And they did receive something to quench their thirst: a prequel, Orphan: First Kill. The news of the prequel’s announcement came with the notice that Isabelle Fuhrman was back to reprise the titular orphan, Esther – the part that elevated her career to new paths. That casting seemed odd at first sight, but it was also interesting to see how the director at the helm, William Brent Bell, could pull it off.
After watching the film, the casting choice still seems off on occasions, and it is a tad silly because it is still Fuhrman (who’s in her twenties) acting as a thirty-year-old woman disguised as a little girl. However, it adds to the experience, as Brent Bell adds a sensation of campiness to the horror elements of the original’s story. Set two years before the events of the 2009 feature, Orphan: First Kill centers around Esther’s second attempt at living a “normal life” with a family that adopts her. Contrary to the film’s title, this is not the first time Esther does some killings of her own, as we are given the backstory of her character that she brutally murdered a previous family years ago. After escaping from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Leena Klammer (Fuhrman) finds her way to America by impersonating a missing kid from the wealthy Albright family, named Esther.
The parents, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland), are shocked at her appearance because a long time has passed since she went missing. Her “father” is broken down, as his daughter’s disappearance caused him to lose interest in his painting passions. However, things start to change once the psychiatrist who was treating Esther in the past notices some inconveniences and fractures in her story that don’t make sense – implying that she is either lying or not the person she’s pretending to be. Leena’s mask is starting to slip, and the family members, primarily Tricia and her “brother” Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), are noticing. Leena needs to ensure that her child-like persona convinces them at any cost, as she doesn’t want to get caught and sent back to the psychiatric institute.
Orphan: First Kill is no great work of horror filmmaking and it obviously doesn’t surpass the original, but it is better than you might expect. I had plenty of worries before watching it because the various trailers didn’t convince me. However, I was entertained and hooked, even with its myriad flaws. First off, you can’t talk about this feature without mentioning the casting choice of Fuhrman. The crew working on the movie didn’t want to use visual effects to make her look younger, like what they did in The Irishman (2019) with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, because it would be very expensive to maintain. So instead, they used three mechanisms to fool the audience: forced-perspective shots, (slight) make-up, and a body double for the shots that needed to show her entirely. Sometimes, these cinematic tools work, thanks to cinematographer Karim Hussain and make-up artist Doug Morrow. Nevertheless, there are occasions in which they cause some laughs, because there are some forced close-up shots of Fuhrman where we know she’s on her knees to fit the character’s height.
I was also questioning the fact that Fuhrman doesn’t look like a seven or nine-year-old in Orphan: First Kill, as she’s well into her twenties now. And although the little use of makeup doesn’t deceive the audience quite well, it somehow fits with the narrative in the long run. Esther hasn’t polished her con-artist techniques yet. In the original Orphan, she had time beforehand to master her deceptive visage of playing the part of a little girl. There, she doesn’t have a strong accent, uses the correct words when talking to her family, and does not get stressed and vengeful easily in front of them, so it makes sense that in this prequel, the character would look older and behave without thinking than what we’d imagine. It also helps that Isabelle Fuhrman is going all in with her performance, as if she’s been dying to dive deep back into this character, embracing the horror and absurdity of the narrative at hand.
When it came to the narrative, William Brent Bell and writer David Coggeshall had to be careful how they’d tackle the story. They couldn’t afford to do a rinse-and-repeat tale of the journey we saw Esther take in the original or going on a lazy route and have her kill people repeatedly because there wouldn’t be a reason for its existence. What made the original film shine and excel was its plot twist that Esther wasn’t really a young girl after all, and, since Orphan: First Kill revolves around the viewer knowing that twist, the production team had to find a thrilling spark to fill the prequel’s sense of necessity. They found that spark by adding camp and horror elements to this already ridiculous narrative, making it a quite entertaining ride.
Unlike the original, which was over two hours long, Orphan: First Kill trimmed plenty of its runtime just to get straight into the essential nail-biting sequences. The camp-induced twist arrives near the halfway point of the movie, like a quick switch, and it causes the film to change tones and genres, causing an enjoyable sensation if you are into consciously silly films. For example, at one moment during its first act, Esther brutally kills a woman with a tire iron, and later on, as she’s in character, she goes to an airplane bathroom to drink a shot of vodka because she’s tired of being treated as a kid.
It is this intertwining of these two different scenes that makes Orphan: First Kill quite an enjoyable ride. I do think plenty of people will find it silly, but the more you go with its campy attitude, the more you will get out of it. It feels like The Omen meets American Psycho, but with a little girl in the Patrick Bateman role, and adds dashes of cheese to the mixture. It knows perfectly well when to elevate its ridiculous self. Fuhrman may be the titular character in the story, but the second half belongs to Julia Stiles. Her performance is a tale of two halves: once the twist is in play, it’s enhanced to a high degree in a pure over-the-top yet delightful style.
Like James Wan’s Malignant, this film doesn’t take itself seriously. And it doesn’t need to! Yes, Orphan: First Kill is not as gripping as the first film, but its self-aware demeanor helps it detach from the original. It is a tale of two tones, detaching itself from the other like the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. It doesn’t work entirely, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a fun time watching it.
Orphan: First Kill will be released in US theaters, on digital and streaming on Paramount+ on August 19, 2022. In the UK, the film will be available to watch on Digital Platforms October 31 and Blu-ray/DVD November 14.