Orphan: First Kill hits theaters and Paramount+ on August 19, 2022.
William Brent Bell’s Orphan: First Kill is a head-scratching paper prequel that defies its conceptual odds. Writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and David Coggeshall crack a code in Alex Mace’s story that, despite the plot reveal in 2009’s Orphan, somehow undermines expectations. A fugitive from an Estonian psychiatric hospital, a fraudster’s crossing to America, her ruse as a missing girl who has now been found – all this is a backstory conveyed in Jaume Collet-Serra’s wacky thriller. Not only that, the supposed orphan’s chameleon trick has already been revealed in Esther’s identity. How was Bell able to recreate all that suspense and darkness when we already know what’s happening? Cleverly and shockingly, the answer is simple: He doesn’t.
Orphan: First Kill turns back the clock for Esther, even as actress Isabelle Fuhrman ages over a decade, and chronicles the beginnings of the European prison warden in Connecticut. Posing as the lost daughter of Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and Tricia Albright (Julia Stiles), the middle-aged stunted patient assumes her role as a beloved child. It’s the same concept of Orphan that lulls us into a sense of familiarity that’s perhaps fairly aggressively overturned midway through Orphan: First Kill. A picture-perfect family is manipulated by a criminal who passes for elementary school age as we watch in disbelief – but Bell’s production has more than one evil trick up its sleeve. The American Dream is shattered once again, but in a prequel that’s as distanced as fencing prodigy Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) pushes his fake sister away.
Fuhrman’s ability to draw on Esther’s childlike mannerisms is on display when the 25-year-old actress has to play 8 again, ostensibly with minimal digital effects on physical attributes. Bell’s ability to manipulate Esther’s character with lighting, body doubles, and specific shooting angles keeps Esther deceptively youthful when Fuhrman isn’t allowed to break her character’s playground costume. A significant obstacle to Orphan: First Kill is the credibility of an already absurd home invasion scenario that Bell executes through Hollywood magic. No fancy aging technology or deepfakes – Esther thrives thanks to Fuhrman’s portrayal of an American girl Dolly brought to life and Bell’s transformative film techniques. It’s a welcome return to watching Esther confusing and terrorizing a wealthy household as a knee-high tormentor who smiles shyly and plays the puppeteer with such sociopathic glee.
In Orphan, care is taken to establish Esther’s villainous habits, whether it’s learning to paint her darkest thoughts in invisible UV blacklight paints or past examples of a masterfully diabolical manipulator. Orphan: First Kill functions as an information-rich prequel, but is at its best when it differs in unexpected ways. It all relies on the performances of Julia Stiles and Matthew Finlan as the facade of suburban nobility dissolves before Esther’s eyes. A heavier tone about Orphan is jettisoned, making Orphan: First Kill feel chaotically ambitious and unfathomable. Highlighting such storytelling victories in detail would require spoilers, so you won’t find any further explanations here – but understand that it’s a delight to watch Esther, Gunnar and Tricia tiptoe around each other. Stiles pulls out all the stops, paying tribute to her Dexter role and fomenting dangers that aren’t pure recreations of Orphan.
What we said about Orphan
Christopher Monfette & Phil Pirrello gave Orphan a 5/10 for IGN in 2009, writing, “Director Jaume Collet-Serra manages to preserve any originality buried behind over-produced horror film clichés and a significant lack of dimensionality for the title character.” Read the full review here.
Bell adopts more of his stay alive and wer styles here, making Orphan: First Kill more successful than his recent work on The Boy or Brahms: The Boy II. It’s never outright terrible, but it’s still unnerving in character progression. Orphan: First Kill feels like an unbridled ’90s relic like James Wan’s Malignant, both pungently brutal and effectively off the rails as the revelations unfold. A war of reckless jokes and betrayals rages on the Albrights’ estate, barely the opening chapter Orphan fans would foresee. It would have been so easy to see precious little Esther tear up another marriage from the inside out – Orphan: First Kill deviates from the easy path, and that’s why it can feel like a fresh franchise ascent as it pushes backwards into territories that were once understood.
Yet there are struggles despite creative liberties that swing so heroically hard. Rossif Sutherland’s warm-hearted prototype father feels undervalued as a patriarch who comes out of his shell only to be hurtled towards heartbreak once again. The overall finale feels light and rushed given the established stalemate as Esther’s Inferno payoff doesn’t quite live up to the excitement of her predatory behavior and what is emerging. Bell’s command as a director is appropriate, but never goes beyond an appropriate choice of settings that sorely lack the extravagance and grandeur that Collet-Serra infuses into his horror projects. Orphan: First Kill is buoyed by quick-witted performances and ruthless scriptwriting – other aspects struggle, especially before the film kicks into high gear when an explosive twist changes everything.