Back in 2009, Orphan shocked audiences all over the world…
…The story of an “orphan” named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) who is adopted by a family and turns out to be a psychotic woman with a genetic disorder posing as a little girl, it’s a film that shot my jaw to the floor. Now, Esther is back in The Boy director William Brent Bell’s prequel, Orphan: First Kill, and she’s as vicious as ever.
Written by David Coggeshall (“Scream: The TV Series”), Fuhrman returns in Orphan: First Kill—not at all looking like a nine-year old, but that's part of the entertaining lunacy of this film—in a story that details her escape from the Saarne Institute and her plot to pose as a family’s lost little girl named Esther. But when “mummy” aka Tricia (Julia Stiles) begins to suspect something’s off, and Esther finds herself falling for “Daddy” aka Allen (Rossif Sutherland), she realizes her murderous instincts can’t stay buried for long.
Despite playing against stars such as Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, Fuhrman was by far the standout of Orphan, and the same goes with Orphan: First Kill. Julia Stiles is excellent as a suspicious mother caught in a cat and mouse game with her own “daughter”, but it’s Fuhrman who once again captivates the screen with a blowout performance that will chill you to the core. If you’ve been waiting thirteen years to see more of Esther, Bell gifts viewers a thrilling opening that might as well be a bloody mic drop for the character. Esther’s escape from Saarne combines all of the elements we love about this crafty killer, from her childlike manipulation to an animalistic rage that results in a whole lot of stabbing. Through it all, Fuhrman easily sinks right back into the deadly shoes of Esther, but with the brilliant mystique of an actress who has a few more years of performing under her belt since she was a kid in Orphan.
This time, Esther remains very much the stabby murderer we’ve come to love and fear, yet there is more focus on the sympathetic side of her. She is, after all, a tortured individual who has lived a life of being seen as only a child in spite of her age, one who yearns for a family that accepts her. Orphan: First Kill, as the best prequels do, gives us a deeper understanding of Esther that left me feeling oddly sorry for her, thanks to a clever script and an engaging portrayal by Fuhrman that invites us further into the character’s soul. This is Esther’s story, and it’s a good one.
I can already imagine that one criticism of First Kill may be its replication of the original. That’s not without warrant. Esther is once again taken in by a family with other siblings, in this case teen d-bag, Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). The mother is once again wary, while the father and Esther share a little too close of a bond. Hell, First Kill is even set during winter, which offers a fitting color palette of blues and greys for this sinister tale. But what at first feels like an unnecessary retread is really the filmmakers setting up expectations so they can later toss a bowling ball at them. Just as Orphan was, First Kill is not quite the story you think it is. It's wonderfully insane.
As for those worried that with the knowledge of Esther’s truth First Kill won’t be as effective? Well, it’s just the opposite, with the filmmakers indulging in the delicious camp of the absurd premise. Part of the joy in revisiting Orphan is in knowing the secret, since it makes each and every scene that much creepier in understanding Esther is no little girl. First Kill has the same effect. This time, the audience is in on it with Esther, making every flirtatious smile towards Allen, every touch of his hand, so very, very unsettling. This is a man whose daughter has been missing for four years and believes he has finally gotten her back. Being aware of the gut-wrenching truth makes every interaction between the two as skin-crawling as they are heartbreaking.
The tension is palpable throughout Orphan: First Kill, thanks to an array of wonderful performances and a masterful manipulation of both knowledge and expectations by the filmmakers. In fact, First Kill is so effective that it makes the third act all that more disappointing when the pace suddenly picks up a little too quickly, as if rushing to the finish out of fear that there isn’t enough meat to the story to hit a home run. It’s a shame, because First Kill has all of the potential to go off like a bomb in the final minutes, yet fizzles out like a dud instead. But, if you’ve seen the first film, you probably have a pretty good idea of how this story ends. First Kill is about the journey, not the destination.
A let down of a third act and an overuse of smoky filters (along with some cringe CG), Orphan: First Kill isn’t without its blemishes. Yet between Fuhrman’s stunning return as Esther and a story overflowing with deceit and clever misdirection, First Kill is exactly what a horror prequel should be: A satisfying, eerie tale that suggests a whole new level of depth to the 2009 classic.
Orphan: First Kill arrives in theaters, on digital and is streaming on Paramount+ August 19th.
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