Orphan First Kill

Horror prequel Orphan: First Kill balances genuine creepiness with bonkers excess

“As far as prequels go, this is surprisingly good. With nowhere to go but over the top, the script takes a pretty unexpected turn that at least pays homage to the original in ballsiness.”

Over a decade after its initial release, Leena from the 2009 film Orphan is back in an improbable prequel Orphan: First Kill, which opens in a mental hospital in Estonia. Leena, the 30-something sociopathic dwarf who poses as a child, is locked up. A new art therapist arrives in the thick of a winter storm. Even as the doctors assure her things are entirely under control, they’re no match for the devious Leena, who manages to escape and make her way to America. With parallels to the twist-laden documentary The Imposter, Leena (now posing as Esther, a missing girl) integrates into a wealthy family in Connecticut.

On paper, it seems pretty useless to revive Orphan. Part of the original movie’s appeal was the major twist, which most people know by now. Yet, as far as prequels go, Orphan: First Kill, shot in grim-looking soft-focus, is surprisingly good. Part of this has to do with Isabelle Fuhrman, who owns the role of Leena/Esther, capturing just the right amount of maniacal and innocence. With nowhere to go but over the top, the script takes a pretty unexpected turn that at least pays homage to the original in ballsiness. 

As the movie plays out, the most interesting part of the movie is a rivalry that builds between Leena and her “new” mother, Tricia (Julia Stiles). Both women vie for the love and attention of Allen (Rossif Sutherland), a man so sad and bearded that people will stop at nothing to protect his fragile ego and bask in the light of his rugged handsomeness. The centrality of this narrative exposes the real tragedy of Leena’s forever-child existence as someone condemned to non-romantic intimacy while not subtly suggesting that Tricia might not be as she seems. 

While hardly underlined, the script’s choice of Esther finding a 1% family (by accident) to live with provides a compelling ideological background. It underscores the pettiness of Leena’s desperation as her new family’s wealth is so vast that her minor larceny goes largely unnoticed. Their wealth and influence similarly cushion them from outside scrutiny as it also offers outsized resources to find (or not find) their missing daughter. The movie provides just enough sympathy for Leena to make her a real character without losing track of her more psychotic and cartoonish elements. 

Director William Brent Bell has a good grasp of the material, delivering on both gore and silliness. While some CGI blood effects feel a little cheap, their painterly excess more than makes up for their artifice. In line with the original film, the camera and CGI effects used to make Isabelle Furman look like a child are nearly seamless. As for silliness, the movie features several “memeable” moments, including a delicious runaway car escape scene featuring Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” Balancing genuine creepiness with just the right amount of tonally bonkers excess serves the film well. 

Orphan: First Kill still lags at points and, while more creative than you might expect, hardly ranks among the better horror films of the year. You could certainly do worse, though. Fans of the original Orphan or anyone looking for a fun horror movie to watch with friends will likely have a good time. The less you know, the better, and as long as you keep your expectations in check, you’ll likely have good, if not absurd, times at the movies (or, in this case, streaming at home as the distributor did not plan a theatrical release). ■

Orphan: First Kill, directed by William Brent Bell

Orphan: First Kill is now available to stream on Paramount+ or rent/buy on VOD.

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