Synopsis: After orchestrating a brilliant escape from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Esther travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.
Stars: Julia Stiles, Isabelle Fuhrmann, Hiro Kanagawa, Rossif Sutherland, Matthew Finlan, Gwendolyn Collins
Director: William Brent Bell
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: A note about this review. While it won’t contain spoilers about Orphan: First Kill, it is necessary to discuss the events of its predecessor, 2009’s Orphan. If you haven’t seen that film yet, even though this is a prequel, you will want to watch that film before seeing this all-new sequel.
Last year was a good one for 24-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman. She appeared in three films; for one of them, The Novice, she won the Best Actress Award at Tribeca and was nominated as Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. Her work on that film was brilliant and, in a perfect world, would have landed her at the Academy Awards, but larger award bodies aren’t quite there yet with recognizing those kinds of challenging female roles.
Fuhrman has worked consistently since her star-making turn in 2009’s Orphan. Then 12, Fuhrman more than capably convinced audiences she was a 9-year-old Russian girl, Esther, who came to live with a couple and their two children. Throughout that film (and on the poster), we’re told that ‘something is wrong with Esther,’ but it’s only at the end after she’s killed several people and torn her adoptive family apart, that we find out this young lady isn’t as young as she looks. She’s a 33-year-old woman with a disorder that stunted her growth; the twist was a massive rug pull for audiences that could hardly predict a surprise of that magnitude.
A solid mid-summer hit when it was released, Orphan has gone on to find an excellent reputation with the horror community and continued to grow in popularity. With Esther not surviving the first film, a sequel was out of the question, but would a prequel work? Prequels continue to be a massive trend in the film industry, and why not elaborate on the backstory only hinted at in David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Aquaman) and Alex Mace’s (Séance) initial treatment? The most significant answer needed was this: Could it work without Fuhrman, who was so integral to the creation of Esther? After 13 years, the original writers returned and miraculously brought Fuhrman back with them.
Debuting on the streaming service Paramount+, you could have heard my eyes roll in Iceland when Orphan: First Kill was initially announced with Fuhrman to star. While the actress still looks young, she doesn’t have that same sinister glare, even in her most demanding roles. Early trailers showing Fuhrman’s head looking too big for a tiny body didn’t improve my mood, but by the time the release day was approaching, my curiosity couldn’t take not knowing how this would turn out. Directed by William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, The Boy and Brahms: The Boy II) with a screenplay from Dave Coggeshall, Orphan: First Kill is an example of why we shouldn’t always dismiss these prequels immediately.
Before Esther went to live with her final family, she was a patient in a psych ward at a hospital in Estonia. A new doctor (Gwendolyn Collins) has arrived at the facility to treat Esther specifically, though their first meeting doesn’t get off to a good start. I’ll spare you the secrets of how Esther manages to escape, but before long, she’s posing as the long-lost daughter of the Albrights, a prominent American couple (Julia Stiles & Rossif Sutherland) who are shocked at first, then delighted to have their youngest child back. Their son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan, Brazen) and a curious detective (Hiro Kanagawa, Needle in a Timestack) that had been working on the original disappearance are also interested in the new girl that has returned to the house.
I’ll be honest and say that the first half hour of Orphan: First Kill isn’t promising. It’s a pile of cliches that work to varying degrees, some more effective than others. Filmed with a heavy haze in the lens, it’s often hard to make out the finer details on people/places/things (all the better to de-age you, Isabelle!) and the ‘How did that happen?’ question list of conveniences gets long fast. Knowing Esther’s secret robs the film of its element of surprise, so we’re left with a Bad Seed-esque entry in the horror genre that is more about Esther preventing others from knowing her business than maintaining any level of surprise.
Ah, but wait, Orphan: First Kill has a devious little trick up its sleeve that I didn’t see coming (I don’t know how you could), which ultimately takes the film in a new direction. It’s here, right around the halfway point, when you realize that the screenwriters spent more time constructing the plot and arranging its deceptive pieces than you initially thought. While you’d been paying attention to figuring out how they made Fuhrman so tiny, the writers (and actors) laid out a gameplan they execute with cunning precision. Don’t think you’ll get a single hint from me about what it is, either.
Quickly falling back into Esther’s wicked little shoes, Fuhrman is fun to watch as she navigates the tricks and effects used to make her look as small as she was all those years ago. It’s easy to tell when Bell used child doubles, but a few times, the film pulls a switcheroo in the middle of a single take, often seamlessly. Fuhrman is working alongside less-powerhouse performers than she did previously; it’s natural she stands out, but even so, there’s an art to playing a villain you almost start to root for at times. Knowing where her story ends doesn’t hamper the enjoyment, either.
If Fuhrman expectedly delivers in her track, the revelation here is Stiles. A frequent star of teen films during the new millennium, I never felt Stiles (Hustlers) got her fair shakes for being a pretty good actress and more advanced for the roles she was playing. Here, as the grieving mother of a kidnapped girl, she brings a new dimension to her work that demonstrates another push forward. She comes at it from a surprising angle when she must defend her family from the intruder.
For horror or suspense movies I’m not reviewing, if it doesn’t grab me in the first ten or fifteen minutes, I’m often guilty of tossing in the towel and looking for something else. Orphan: First Kill is a reminder of why that can be a limiting practice. While it has its stumbles in the first half hour, it more than redeems itself when its whopper of a pivot is introduced and quickly becomes an engaging nail-biter. A successful flick like Orphan: First Kill is what can happen when filmmakers carefully consider returning to a popular title; you get a prequel with purpose.