Director: William Brent Bell
Writers: David Coggeshall, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Alex Mace
Stars: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland, Hiro Kanagawa
Right off the bat, Orphan: First Kill faces three inherent obstacles.
First, the film comes 13 years after the original, an eternity in horror years. While Orphan was better than expected, a sleeper hit and has enjoyed a bit of a cult following ever since, it is hardly iconic, nor is its villain, Esther. Perhaps that figured in the decision to premiere the film on Paramount+. Second, it is a prequel. Horror prequels are nothing new and generally unnecessary because their very nature assures the antagonist will survive, ultimately undermining any attempt at real suspense.
Third, and most importantly, what made Orphan particularly memorable was the shocking revelation that Esther wasn’t a 10-year-old, but a psychotic woman afflicted with hypopituitarism, which kept her from physically aging. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, topping such a remarkable plot twist is a tall order for any follow-up.
But surprisingly, Orphan: First Kill manages to justify its existence. For the most part, it overcomes the aforementioned obstacles to become a decent little thriller in its own right. Sure, we’re aware of Esther’s secret, but without giving too much away, other characters are hiding much worse skeletons in their closet…perhaps not as shocking, but reprehensible enough to turn Esther into sort-of an anti-hero.
Until that middle-act revelation, Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) violently escapes the Saarne Institute and impersonates Esther, the long-missing daughter of grieving parents Tricia and Allen Albright (Julia Stiles & Rossif Sutherland). For a while, the narrative plays much like the first film, with Esther insinuating herself on the family and killing anyone threatening to expose her. Though 13 years have passed, Fuhrman is still pretty convincing as Esther and great fun to watch.
Orphan: First Kill eventually veers away from horror to become more of a cat & mouse thriller once every character’s cards are on the table, which I suppose was inevitable. Esther is still an unnerving creation, but her power to instill true dread ended with the first film, so pitting her against even worse foils takes this story in an unexpected and interesting direction. The scenario also lends itself to some welcome bits of black comedy.
Of course, the viewer is frequently required to suspend their disbelief, especially during the first act. But as prequels go, Orphan: First Kill is surprisingly entertaining, with unexpected narrative turns, a few good bloody kills and another creepy/campy performance by Fuhrman.