Orphan: First Kill
The ‘Orphan’ franchise is back, this time with a prequel about its pint-sized psychopath — and it still relies upon committed performances and a wild twist.
September 01, 2022
What's more believable — and plot twists follow: a pre-teen playing a 33-year-old woman pretending to be a nine-year-old orphan, with a hormone disorder explaining the character's eerily youthful appearance; or an adult playing a 31-year-old woman pretending to be a lost child returned at age nine, again with that medical condition making everyone else oblivious? For viewers of 2009's Orphan and its 13-years-later follow-up Orphan: First Kill, which is a prequel, neither are particularly credible to witness. But the first film delivered its age trickery as an off-kilter final-act reveal, as paired with a phenomenal performance by then 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman in the pivotal role. Audiences bought the big shift — or remembered it, at least — because Fuhrman was so creepy and so committed to the bit, and because it suited the OTT horror-thriller. This time, that wild revelation is old news, but that doesn't stop Orphan: First Kill from leaning on the same two key pillars: an out-there turn of events and fervent portrayals.
Fuhrman (The Novice) returns as Esther, the Estonian adult who posed as a parentless Russian girl in the initial feature. In Orphan: First Kill, she's introduced as Leena Klammer, the most dangerous resident at the Saarne Institute mental hospital. The prequel's first sighted kill comes early, as a means of escape. The second follows swiftly, because the film needs to get its central figure to the US. Fans of the previous picture will recall that Esther already had a troubled history when she was adopted and started wreaking the movie's main havoc, involving the family that brought her to America — and her time with that brood, aka wealthy Connecticut-based artist Allen Albright (Rossif Sutherland, Possessor), his gala-hosting wife Tricia (Julia Stiles, Hustlers) and their teen son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan, My Fake Boyfriend), is this flick's focus.
Like their counterparts in Orphan, the Albrights have suffered a loss and are struggling to move on. When Leena poses as their missing daughter Esther, Allen especially seems like his old self again. As also happened in Orphan, however, the pigtail- and ribbon-wearing new addition to their home doesn't settle in smoothly. Orphan: First Kill repeats the original movie's greatest hits, including the arty doting dad, the wary brother, taunts labelling Esther a freak and a thorny relationship with her mum. Also covered: suspicious external parties, bathroom tantrums, swearing to get attention and spying on her parents having sex. And yes, anyone who has seen Orphan knows how this all turns out, and that it leads to the above again in Orphan, too. Thankfully, that's only part of Orphan: First Kill's narrative.
Twists can be curious narrative tools; sometimes they're inspired, sometimes they're a crutch propping up a flimsy screenplay, and sometimes they seesaw between both. Orphan: First Kill tumbles gleefully into the latter category, thanks to a revelation midway that's patently ridiculous — although no more ridiculous than Orphan earning a follow-up in the first place — and also among the best things about the movie. It's a big risk, making a film that's initially so laughably formulaic that it just seems lazy, then letting a sudden switch completely change the game, the tone and the audience's perception of what's transpired so far. That proved a charm for the thoroughly unrelated Malignant in 2021, and it's a gamble that filmmaker William Brent Bell (The Boy and Brahms: The Boy II) and screenwriter David Coggeshall (Scream: The TV Series) take. Working with a story by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) and Alex Mace (who earned the same credit on the original), it's one of their savviest choices.
Another crucial decision that would've shattered the film had it gone the other way: getting Fuhrman back. Given she's now definitely an adult, it's downright preposterous to buy her as passing for nine, Lizzie Borden dresses and all — but with the jig already up for viewers before this flick even begins, that visible discrepancy adds another sinister layer to everything Esther gets up to. Yes, Bell and cinematographer Karim Hussain (Firestarter) are toying with everyone watching just like their evil protagonist does, not only with the Albrights but with unconvinced Detective Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa, Pachinko) and doubtful Dr Segar (Samantha Walkes, Murdoch Mysteries) as well. Fuhrman makes you want to go along with the gambit; she's again a force to be reckoned with as the malevolent, manipulative miniature psychopath, playing her part with equal parts steely determination and calm-faced derangement, and with the help of camera angles and practical effects to keep up the act.
Bell knows that Orphan's twist is now as familiar as those in The Sixth Sense, The Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green. He also knows that Orphan is more famous for how it ends than being a genre standout otherwise, which it isn't. And, he knows that viewers are aware that Fuhrman is now an adult portraying an adult impersonating a child, rather than a child portraying a woman professing to be a kid. That also works emotionally for Orphan: First Kill, laying the groundwork for its own change of direction. In Orphan, Esther always resembles a brattish girl, even when she drops her disguise, and sympathising with her adoptive mother's anguish comes easily. Here, she's clearly an adult, and wondering why her ruse seems to work so smoothly also comes with the territory.
Orphan didn't just boast one big performance, of course, and neither does Orphan: First Kill. More Julia Stiles in all things is always welcome, including when she's dealing with demonic tykes as she also did in The Omen remake. The twist she's saddled with here is inescapably silly, but Stiles has a glorious amount of fun with it — and helps answer the question that hangs over the film's first half (that'd be "why is Julia Stiles in this?"). She isn't quite enough to justify Orphan: First Kill's existence, and nor is Fuhrman repeating her first big success, the new surprise development that the whole picture hinges on, all the callbacks or the whole origin-story vibe. The world didn't really need to know why Esther likes blacklight paintings or where she first got her ribbons, which adds zero depth to the franchise. Attempting to evoke empathy for the murder-happy figure doesn't strike the chord it's meant to, either. But that revelation is still worth discovering, and Fuhrman and Stiles' performances are still worth watching, in a movie that knows it's a lurid and needless second effort — and happily leans in.
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