Prequels can be tough for both filmmakers and audiences as an abundance of information regarding story and characters typically already exists from the previous film. Too many are content rehashing familiar ground, but the best find a fresh story within that existing narrative. Orphan: First Kill is a prequel to 2009’s horror hit Orphan, and while it seems at first to be just another bland prequel with nothing original to say, the back half of the film has something insanely special up its lacy sleeves. No spoilers here, but this is a prequel done right.
The 2009 film is the story of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a young orphan from Eastern Europe whose first American family perished in a tragic house fire. A new family hopes to become her forever home but soon discover her horrifying secret — she’s actually a homicidal maniac named Leena, in her thirties with a rare hormonal disorder that stunted her growth. That film ends rather definitively, but now thirteen years later we’ve been gifted with a look back at what really happened to Esther’s first adoptive family.
It’s 2007, and Leena (Fuhrman) is a ward in an Estonian asylum. Until, that is, she escapes by orchestrating a bloodbath and soon finds herself shipped off to America. The authorities believe she’s Esther, the daughter of Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen Albright (Rossif Sutherland) who disappeared five years prior. Along with their teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), the couple is a mix of excited and uncertain about Esther’s return. She has an accent, her memories seem off, and there’s just something odd about her Addams Family wardrobe. They discover just what’s wrong with Esther soon enough, but by then it might be far too late. (It is, this is a prequel, remember?)
Orphan: First Kill had a tall order trying to live up to the wild twist in the first film, but it arguably succeeds with its own wicked story turns in the back half delivering big thrills and some real WTF moments. Director William Brent Bell — best known for The Boy (2016) and its 2020 sequel, but deserving of far more praise for 2013’s werewolf banger Wer — is clearly at home crafting horror movies that are played serious while still embracing degrees of both absurdity and campiness. You will most likely cackle more than once here as the film leaves you smiling in disbelief as the wild ride reveals itself.
Writer David Coggeshall — he of 2013’s still hilariously titled but deadly serious The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia — struggles a bit in the film’s first half. Characters are over the top in their stupidity which not only lessens the challenge for Esther but also leaves viewers uninterested in both them and the unfolding tale. (Maximum security hospital guards aren’t this obtuse. Did they really find a child missing five years and not do a physical exam?) Things shift around the halfway point, though, as Coggeshall tweaks perceptions and turns the dial from dumb and familiar all the way up to wildly entertaining. This is Esther’s world, and we’re all just living in it (until she decides to off us in some fashion).
The cast is uniformly strong, but Orphan: First Kill‘s acting MVP is a tie between Fuhrman and Stiles. Fuhrman is once again tasked with playing a “child,” and while some heavy lifting is done by others there’s no denying her skill at subterfuge with both line delivery and facial expressions. She’s at her best, though, when she can drop the charade and let her devious mine shine. Stiles is equally game for the horror of it all as a woman who discovers Esther’s secret and finds herself in a life and death battle. The two are a terrific pairing who turn their head-to-head battles into high art.
One of the challenges facing Orphan: First Kill, beyond the prequel narrative itself, is how to make Fuhrman look like a child. She’s in her mid 20s, first played this character thirteen years ago, and is now playing an even younger version of Esther. Her performance goes a long way, but Bell and cinematographer Karim Hussain (Possessor, 2020) also pull out numerous tricks to complete the illusion. The film employs some Lord of the Rings-style perspective visuals and smart camera angles, and along with cast members wearing platform shoes the impression that Esther is just a little girl comes complete. It’s a thing of practical beauty.
“Nothing is ever just one thing,” says a character, and it’s an all-encompassing observation about people, impressions, and even the film itself. Orphan: First Kill is more than a little silly and even a bit redundant, but it’s also a horror/thriller that’s unafraid to have fun with its story and characters. What starts as something middle of the road soon takes over the whole highway with its ridiculous beats and needle drops en route to a satisfying conclusion. Here’s hoping the filmmakers reach into the depths of their creativity to find more stories for Esther to rampage through.
Orphan: First Kill is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+.