Prequel Orphan: First Kill Marks Diminutive Esther’s Return to Violence
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Orphan: First Kill, a prequel to 2009’s Orphan, actually exists. Star Isabelle Fuhrman was only ten years old when she broke through as the psychotically malevolent Esther. How director William Brent Bell (The Boy) and writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Alex Mace, and David Coggeshall planned on bringing her back in a story set two years before the original — and with Fuhrman returning to star — was way beyond me.
But they do it nonetheless. Utilizing a variety of cinematic tricks, including body doubles and some de-aging digital effects wizardry, Bell and company almost pull it off, too. Esther’s resurrection feels uncomfortably realistic, and Fuhrman’s continuing evolution as an actor — she delivered one of 2021’s best performances with her virtuoso work in Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice — only allows her to be even more psychologically terrifying in the role.
Yet I do say “almost,” as Johnson-McGoldrick and Mace’s original story, along with Coggeshall’s screenplay, never rises to the occasion. Other than one admittedly spectacular twist, most of this scenario plays like a second-rate direct-to-video horror offering from the late 1990s or early 2000s. It’s a reasonably well-constructed hack-and-slash guessing game in which secret identities are protected with violence and finding unexpected resting places for a random corpse is the name of the game.
Still, there are plenty of clever touches, including a lovely but disquieting cat-and-mouse contest involving some homemade macaroni and cheese and a lovingly prepared breakfast smoothie. The prequel also features Julia Stiles in a primary role — I’d forgotten how much I adore her until she was given this meaty character to voraciously sink her teeth into. Together, she and Fuhrman keep things interesting, and even when events devolve into simplistic fiery chaos, their combined intensity whenever they share the screen remains undeniable.
For those who have not watched Orphan, consider this your spoiler warning for that film, because it’s impossible to talk about this prequel without discussing what happened the last time Esther made an appearance. As stated, this new tale takes place in 2007 and begins in Estonia, with the lead character incarcerated in a psychiatric care facility for the criminally insane. She suffers from hypopituitarism, a rare affliction that means this thirtysomething woman still has the appearance and body of an adolescent, prepubescent child.
After engineering a brutal escape, this cunning murderess takes the name of Esther and steals her way to the United States. She does this by convincing authorities that she is the daughter of Tricia (Stiles) and Allen Albright (Rossif Sutherland), kidnapped four years prior and thought to have been trafficked out of the country. She claims to have escaped her captors, so everyone is ecstatic to restore the child to her parents, clueless that they’re all being conned.
This reveal regarding Esther’s medical condition was the climactic kicker in the original, and it is probably why Orphan has become a minor cult favorite over the last decade or so. But as that bit of deceit is already acknowledged, Bell and the writers understand they can’t get a lot of mileage out of that here. Instead, they make sure the audience is in on the woman’s go-to subterfuge right from the start. This allows Fuhrman to revel in Esther’s homicidal psychosis as never before, and it’s clear the actor is having a blast playing the character for a second time.
As Esther’s identity is a known commodity, this means the filmmakers have to come up with something new if they’re going to once again pull the rug out from underneath the audience. This twist I am not going to talk about, other than to say it’s a doozy, and while what happens wasn’t a complete shock, the way the reveal is staged, written, and performed certainly is. As misdirection goes, it’s kind of glorious, and I wish I’d been able to watch this with an audience, as I imagine their reaction would have been stupendous.
If only the climax had been better, then I’d be more willing to recommend everyone — and not just fans of the original — give Orphan: First Kill a look. But it isn’t good, as things take a plodding and nonsensical turn into the boringly tedious that’s unfortunate. Fuhrman and Stiles do what they can, but the action-heavy nature of the final scenes consistently works against both of them.
While I’m equally flabbergasted and happy this prequel exists — welcome back to the big screen, Dark Castle Entertainment! — I’m also frustrated and annoyed by how things turned out. Esther’s rebirth is a mixed bag of blood, guts, good ideas, and missed opportunities, with that last item disappointingly dominant by a fairly substantial margin over everything else.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)