On a list of films unlikely to generate a prequel for release in 2022, the 2009 horror film Orphan would have to rank somewhere close to the top of the list.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has since worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, culminating with a directing gig for the upcoming superhero flick Black Adam, while star Isabelle Fuhrman is now twice the age she was when playing 9-year-old Esther in the first film.
Those who haven’t seen Orphan, and would like to do so unspoiled, may not want to read past this sentence, since it’s difficult to discuss Orphan: First Kill without revealing its predecessor’s shocking twist. Knowing that “Esther” is actually a murderous woman in her early 30s with proportional dwarfism presents yet another stumbling block for a potential followup: What’s left to tell now that we know the big reveal? Despite these challenges, First Kill nevertheless registers as a mild success.
We open in an Estonian psychiatric institute, where we see the brutally devious Leena (Fuhrman) stage an unlikely escape, as was revealed toward the end of the first film. While scouring the internet for missing persons reports, Leena discovers she resembles Esther Albright, a young girl from Connecticut who hasn’t been seen in the past four years. Upon hearing news that her daughter has been found, Esther’s mother Tricia (Julia Stiles) flies to an embassy in Moscow to reunite with who she thinks is her missing daughter. Leena further infiltrates the Albrights, traveling back to the States to con Esther’s father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) in the family’s expansive New England estate. But how long will Leena be able to pass for Esther and what will the Albrights do if they uncover the deception?
At the outset, Orphan: First Kill has the difficult task of giving the now 25-year-old Fuhrman the appearance of a pre-teen, ironic given that Leena is 33 in Orphan, but convinces a family she’s 9. Digital de-aging has gotten very popular on big-budget fare over the past several years, but with more limited resources, director William Brent Bell and his crew instead implement more low-tech solutions like body doubles and forced perspective shots to maintain the illusion. Cinematographer Karim Hussain also does some heavy lifting, casting the frame with a warm glow that aggressively softens facial features, even if it becomes detrimental to tasteful camerawork. Some of the scenes are so overlit, overexposed, or both, it can be downright garish aesthetically, but Hussain eases up some as the film progresses.
But the most important aspect of reviving “Esther” for Orphan: First Kill is the performance by Fuhrman, who returns to the role following a 13-year hiatus. Not only is she able to once again tap into the signature creepiness that made the first film as memorable as it was, but she brings out Leena’s loneliness and longing to a degree that we somehow begin to sympathize with her evil character.
Vera Farmiga was terrific in Orphan, and in the role of a fellow traumatized mother adjusting to the presence of a new daughter, Stiles delivers similarly excellent work. As good as Fuhrman and Stiles are, no one else in the cast is able to make nearly as much of an impact. Filling out the well-to-do Albright family, Sutherland and Finlan just don’t add much depth to their already shallow characters.
Both of the Orphan films exist in a subgenre of horror that I would describe as “elevated trash.” The premises are, frankly, a bit silly and hard to take seriously, and yet, there is an art and craft to pulling them effectively. The performers and those behind the scenes all seem to be on the same page that they’re making some high camp and serious shlock. Even along those lines, this entry really strains some credulity down the stretch on behalf of its characters, and that’s even given its already outlandish narrative. But I respect the pure panache that went into willing this most unlikely prequel into being, which is currently available to watch in theaters, rent digitally on Prime, or stream on Paramount+.
However one chooses to reenter the Orphan universe, First Kill should surprise and delight those who go in with low expectations.
New movies coming to theaters this weekend
Three Thousand Years of Longing, a fantasy film starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, follows a scholar in Istanbul who encounters a Djinn that offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom.
Breaking, a thriller starring John Boyega and Michael K. Williams in his final role, tells the true story of a former Marine Corps veteran in financial trouble who robs a bank by way of a bomb threat.
The Invitation, a supernatural horror movie starring Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty, finds a young woman discovering dark secrets about her family during the lavish wedding of her long-lost cousin.