Orphan: First Kill is miles better than a belated Orphan prequel has any right to be. It’s been 13 long years since 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman gave horror fans a contemporary icon in Esther, a “child from hell” for a new generation. Orphan remains a captivating chiller in the modern day, bolstered by a stable of strong performances and more than a few scenes that are downright evil.
But anyone who has seen Orphan knows a sequel wouldn’t have been possible. Indeed, Hollywood has retconned a lot of franchises in the past for the sake of a needless follow-up, but Esther drowning in an icy pond at the end of Jaume Collet-Serra’s film was such a definitive conclusion that no justifiable “next chapter” could exist. So, we get a look at how Esther escaped from the Saarne Institute in Estonia, found herself in Connecticut, and fooled her first American family before she inflicted emotional trauma on the Colemans.
Opening in 2007 Estonia, “Esther,” or Leena (reprised by Fuhrman), her real name, breaks out of Saarne and adopts the person of Esther Albright, a missing American girl. She covers up the scars she sustained in the hospital with ribbons, and justifies her European dialect by saying she was kidnapped and taken to Russia. Esther’s wealthy parents, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland), and older brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), are simply happy to have their little “angel” home.
First Kill‘s worrisome first act makes it appear that William Brent Bell’s prequel is poised to play out like its predecessor — until a sharp, mid-second act twist sends it into a completely different territory. Now, incredulity aside, it’s a pleasure to report that the twist succeeds in livening up the movie’s familiarity and slow-start. Its lunacy is believably rendered and turns the tables on the pint-sized antagonist.
Fuhrman, now 25-years-old, has grown-up significantly since her first outing as Esther, which made the prospects of an Orphan prequel that much more comical. Paramount was stuck between a rock and a hard place in deciding to recast her (nearly impossible to do and still make a quality film) and needing Esther to appear younger. Through forced perspective, tricky camera illusions, and a couple body doubles, Fuhrman succeeds once again; back like she never left and hasn’t aged nor grown at all. She also has a pretty good plus-one in Julia Stiles, who looks the same as she did when she saved the last dance.
First Kill plays to the strengths of its idiosyncratic premise of a grown-woman confined to the body of a toddler arguably better than its predecessor. Jimmy Durante’s song “The Glory of Love” plays a pivotal role. Leena’s closest companion in the Albrights’ stately manor is a feral rat who lives in the ducts. A pesky parrot and the real-life Esther’s diary helps Leena carry out the lie. You don’t quite know what David Coggeshall’s screenplay is going to throw at you next, but you’re here for it all the more.
Coggeshall smartly doesn’t fall victim to turning Esther into a crude caricature, laboriously resurrected to make uncouth remarks with a Soviet scowl. That can happen so easily to an overnight horror icon, especially after an extended absence. Fuhrman’s Esther remains notable for the crafty lengths she goes to execute her deception, and her attraction to DILFs is still an amusing subplot.
Once the central twist is revealed, Orphan: First Kill pivots to the look and feel of a “USA Up All Night”-esque TV movie. For some films, that would be an indictment. In this case, it’s a compliment that comes with a sigh of relief.
NOTE: Orphan: First Kill is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Paramount+.
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland, Matthew Finlan, and Hiro Kanagawa. Directed by: William Brent Bell.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!