Orphan: First Kill Review
If you have not seen Jaume Collet-Sera’s 2009 film Orphan, I would suggest that despite Orphan: First Kill being a prequel to that film, you are depriving yourself of one of the best twists in a horror film of the 21st century, and one that this 2022 film openly ruins before it even gets to its own unique brand of insanity. A delirious film that is fun enough without the twist but then becomes its own form of chaos, Orphan should be watched before this prequel. However, if circumstances are out of your control and Orphan: First Kill is your first experience to the murderous world of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), you’re still in relatively safe hands.
Directed by William Brent Bell with a screenplay from David Coggeshall, Orphan: First Kill is surprisingly almost as delirious as Collet-Sera’s film, but arguably suffers more from being a prequel – until it suddenly doesn’t. Following Leena (Fuhrman) as she escapes a mental institution in Estonia, Orphan: First Kill often feels like it’s painting by numbers in the first half of the film. Stretches go by where it’s not only retreading similar ground as the 2009 film, but it’s also showing how Leena becomes Esther and her learning to take advantage of her unique inability to physically develop beyond the appearance of a child.
Fuhrman steps back into the role she played 12 years ago, but this time she’s older playing a younger version of Esther. Knowing these facts makes it all the more impressive that Orphan: First Kill balances digital effects and camera positioning to make Fuhrman still appear just as she did in 2009. It’s something the film doesn’t need to convince the viewer of since they do away with any pretense of how old Leena is, but is still necessary when Leena violently escapes Estonia and comes to America to pretend to be the Albright family’s missing daughter. A Russian accent and scars she needs to hide are about all that could throw her cover into disarray as Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland) accept the lie that Leena is their daughter, Esther.
Orphan: First Kill is a generally uninteresting film for roughly half of its runtime. It’s too preoccupied with how Leena becomes Esther and ultimately solidifies the tricks she learns that carries over to her time in Orphan. Where the film makes its smartest decision by ditching almost all of that in the second half of the movie and allowing Esther’s experience in the 2009 film to be colored by her experience in First Kill. It’s an incredible achievement that Coggeshall and Bell manage to keep under wraps effectively enough and then the film gets turned on its head in a hilarious but also enriching manner.
A good prequel should never just be the origin of a character’s signature traits. It can be those things, and Orphan: First Kill most definitely contains a lot of referential material, but it also puts its character through a journey and one that feels like it gives Orphan a slight recontextualization. It is shocking how well First Kill does stand on its own even though it actually is a bit of a slog to get to its twist. Not particularly uninteresting, but certainly lacking in any striking visuals or compelling narrative beyond Fuhrman’s performance and just what exactly is going to transpire with this family.
It would be absurd not to also mention Stiles who gets to have almost as much fun as Fuhrman here, which is a rare treat. A matriarch that protects her family, her suspicions that Esther may not be what she seems are apparent from the beginning, but it’s the way the film plays with that similar plotting from the first film that makes the eventual twist and events that succeed it all the more satisfying.
For a horror film, Orphan: First Kill is not as brutal and depraved as the 2009 film but it’s also not the film that anyone other than Orphan fans might have expected. There’s something to be said about taking a movie that was already known for its insanity and then making a prequel that seems unnecessary before turning that on its head as well. Again though, if you have not seen Orphan, I think this robs the film of its impact, but those who have seen Collet-Sera’s twisted film will find a new way of approaching Esther as a character in that film thanks to Coggeshall’s campy screenplay that chooses experiences over moments.