When news broke that a follow-up to Orphan was in development, the big question was: How? After all, those who saw the exceptional original know that the climax leaves the door fairly closed to a sequel. But in an interesting twist, writer David Coggeshall (Prey) and director William Brent Bell (The Boy) decided to take the prequel route instead, turning back the clock to the events leading up to the first film.
The idea of this horror prequel is even more of a head-scratcher because the film’s star, Isabelle Fuhrman (who is now 25), was only 12 years old when she first wrapped her pigtails in ribbons to play the murderous Esther. Sure, no one looks exactly the same as when they were a child, but with a mix of filmmaking techniques including forced perspective shots, make-up, and utilizing body doubles, the central conceit of making Fuhrman look like a child again mostly—and surprisingly—works. But make-up and tricks aside, it wouldn’t succeed without Fuhrman’s fantastic performance. She slips back into the character like a glove, eschewing mimicry in favor of putting in the real work to once again command the screen. The result is a performance that’s as captivating as it is terrifying. Her Esther flips between moments of faux-sweetness and murderous rage, and her fierce commitment to reprising the character—complete with child-like mannerisms, wide-eyed glances, and a European accent—imbues Esther with a chilling presence.
Orphan: First Kill opens on “Esther” (real name: Leena Klammer), a patient in an Estonian psychiatric facility. We know from the prior film’s twist that although Esther looks like a child, she isn’t; rather, she’s a grown woman who suffers from a rare disease called hypopituitarism that stunts her growth. But rather than accept her situation and deal with the deep-rooted psychological issues it has caused her, Leena uses her condition to her advantage by orchestrating her escape from the institution and impersonating the missing daughter of wealthy American couple.
Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and Tricia Albright (Julia Stiles) are thrilled to have their child home again after four years, but they quickly begin to notice that some things about their long-lost daughter are…off. Like Esther’s new accent, wardrobe, and her recollection of false memories. It’s no secret that things don’t look good for the Albrights. After all, Orphan divulged that a fire killed Esther’s first adoptive family. However, First Kill keeps us guessing about their fate: How will it happen? Did Esther have anything to do with it? Will they uncover her secret?
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In terms of plot, there’s not a lot of meat on the bones here. We already know Esther’s backstory from exposition dialogue in the prior film. A great deal of the fun of Orphan was being in the dark about Esther’s true nature and discovering it alongside her adoptive parents. This time around, we’re in on Esther’s secret as she cons a new family. While it may seem as if it’s the same play we saw in the prior film, there’s an interesting twist that comes about halfway through the film that takes it in a very unexpected direction. It’s a twist with character and plot reveals that I wish the film had spent a little more time and care diving into, especially because it’s so deliciously dark. To say more would be to spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that Esther isn’t the only character capable of extreme evil.
In fact, at its heart, Orphan: First Kill is a film about duality—the pleasant, socially acceptable side of ourselves we present to the world versus the darker side that we keep secret to preserve our family, relationships, and status. It’s here that the most interesting parts of the film arise, especially when it comes to moments dealing with Leena’s deep-rooted psychological issues. There are several times throughout the film where we see glimmers of genuine pain, fury, and repressed trauma peeking through her façade, but the film doesn’t spend as much time exploring them as I’d hoped. With the audience already aware of Esther’s big secret, it would have been a welcome addition to spend extra time diving deeper into her psyche before the blood begins to flow. The film clocks in at just over 90-minutes and could’ve been enhanced by an additional 15 or 20 spent peeling back Esther’s complex layers.
Did we need another Orphan film, especially after the fantastic original? Not really. But Fuhrman’s completely captivating performance and the quick- and tightly-paced thrills makes First Kill a follow-up that—if not completely necessary—is certainly a lot of fun.
Orphan: First Kill is in theaters, VOD, and streaming on Paramount+ August 19, 2022