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Orphan: First Kill Review

August 16, 2022 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Orphan: First Kill Image Credit: Paramount
7.5
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Orphan: First Kill Review  

Directed by: William Brent Bell
Written by: David Coggeshall

Starring:
Isabelle Fuhrman – Esther Albright
Julia Stiles – Tricia Albright
Rossif Sutherland – Allen Albright
Hiro Kanagawa – Detective Donnan
Matthew Finlan – Gunnar Albright
Samantha Walkes – Dr. Segar
Dave Brown – Dr. Novotny
Lauren Cochrane – Officer Leahy
Gwendolyn Collins – Anna Troyev

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated R for bloody violence, language and brief sexual content.
Available in Theaters, On Digital and Streaming on Paramount+ August 19.

Orphan was one of those horror films audiences weren’t ready for upon its 2009 release. That’s not to say it was ahead of its time or anything; rather, it was one of those films that comes along every now and then that takes a real big swing with a plot twist so wild as to give the audience whiplash. That may be why the film was not critically appreciated – films with such audacious plot choices rarely are – despite audiences resonating with it and making it a box office hit.

It’s been thirteen years since Isabelle Fuhrman, then 10 years old, blew audiences away with her performance as Esther, the manipulative and murderous adult woman with a child’s body. Considering the nature of Esther’s medical condition and the conclusion to Orphan, it seemed inconceivable that we would have any reason to expect more stories of her at this point. But that was where Dark Castle Entertainment said, “Hold my beer.” Fuhrman returns to the role that made her famous with the audacious prequel Orphan: First Kill, which surprises not only by returning the 23-year-old Furhman to a character who is looks nine but also by meeting the bonkers enjoyment value of the original.

First Kill takes place two years before the events of the original movie as Esther – or Leena Klammer, as we already know – is imprisoned in the Estonian mental hospital referenced in the first film. She is already resourceful though and suffice it to say that it doesn’t take long for her to escape. Once out, she decides to escape to America by assuming the identity of Esther Albright, the child of a wealthy who has been missing for four years.

It isn’t long before Esther is in the home of the Albrights – matriarch Tricia (Julia Stiles), her husband Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and their son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). While there are a few minor stumbles at first, Esther is quickly able to learn what she needs to in order to effectively mimic the girl she’s replaced. But not everything is that simple. The detective who worked her case is suspicious. The therapist she speaks to has concerns. And Esther finds other surprises she did not expect. As avenues begin to close on her, the question becomes whether Esther can escape scrutiny – and who will pay the price.

If you were skeptical of this film, you weren’t alone. Orphan was a singular film that appeared to be a one-and-done. And the idea of Isabelle playing the same role at 23 that she played at 10 seemed inconceivable. Add in the fact that director William Brent Bell doesn’t have the most sterling record behind the camera (see: The Devil Inside, Stay Alive) and there was ample reason for horror fans to be skeptical.

That’s part of what makes it so delightful that First Kill is as fun as its predecessor. The screenplay from David Coggeshall smartly dispenses with the mystery of Esther’s secret in the opening moments of the film and instead focuses on setting up her situation. Coggeshall gives us enough set up for Esther’s situation and character establishment to lull us into a false sense of security, with much of the first half settling us into Esther’s new (old) family. It keeps moving thanks to the performances of the cast and some deliciously nasty moments from Esther, with Fuhrman comfortably slipping back into the role.

And then, just as we’re comfortable in the familiar rhythms of the first movie, the rug gets yanked out HARD. Without spoiling the film, First Kill has a plot twist I truly didn’t see coming and which caught me unaware because I was firmly within those familiar patterns. From there, the film takes a fundamental shift that lets you forget that we know in broad strokes what happened before the events of Orphan – or at the very least, that it doesn’t matter because this is going to be fun.

One of the most impressive parts of First Kill is the way in which they make Fuhrman seem like a woman with a prepubescent body. It’s not seamless, but the use of a body double, makeup & wardrobe effects and other visual tricks allow it to stand up well enough to suspend disbelief in almost every instance. The studio could have recast the role, but bringing back Furhman allows them to do things with Esther that they couldn’t realistically do with a child. The decision takes the leash off the character, and Fuhrman makes the most of it.

Given a strong script to work with, Bell gives one of his better efforts at the director’s helm. He’s aware of exactly what kind of movie he is making here and goes to the hilt with it, finding the right balance being playing the whole thing straight and leaning into the WTF factor. He strikes a tone that allows Stiles to deliver another memorable performance; Stiles is fantastic here as the resourceful Tricia and she matches up incredibly well with Fuhrman.

All that said, this is certainly not a perfect movie. The opening scenes have some off-kilter lighting choices that are distracting, and while the cast is doing fine work in the first act it doesn’t change the fact that we’re running through the same motions that we saw in the 2009 film. And when you get to the back half, it becomes harder to forget what the first film told us about this period of Esther’s life so even though it’s an enjoyable ride, the end is a foregone conclusion. And the times when the effects work fail to hide Fuhrman’s age do stand out.

Still, when it’s all said and done you have to consider First Kill a pretty solid success, warts and all. It’s certainly one to be divisive, much like its predecessor was. But if you’re willing to let your preconceptions go and enjoy the ride, you’re likely to be quite entertained.

7.5
The final score: review Good
The 411
Orphan: First Kill is a surprisingly good prequel to the 2009 entry. Fantastic performances by Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles elevate a script that subverts expectations incredibly well, while the effects work to make Fuhrmann appear to be a child are shockingly good. This won't win over any converts from the crowd who didn't enjoy the original, but those who appreciated Orphan and are willing to let go of their skepticism can buckle in for a wildly entertaining ride.
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Orphan: First Kill, Jeremy Thomas