Esther returns for a silly, fun, better-than-the-first romp
Nothing about Orphan: First Kill should work. Paramount Plus’ new horror movie is a prequel to the 2009 cult-hit horror movie Orphan, but from a different director and writer. The primary holdover from the first movie is Isabelle Fuhrman (The Hunger Games), who plays the homicidal 9-year-old orphan, Esther, in both movies — in spite of the 13-year gap between prequel and original. But instead of the disaster it should be, Orphan: First Kill is a tremendously clever slasher that has fun with, and lives up to, its absurd premise.
[Ed. note: This review contains significant spoilers for 2009’s Orphan.]
Orphan: First Kill takes place several years before the events of the first movie, and starts with Esther, whose real name is Leena, in a hospital in Estonia. Viewers immediately get the explanation that the first movie saved for its surprise twist: While Leena looks like a 9-year old girl, she’s actually an adult woman in her 30s, with a rare condition that caused her body to stop developing. Also, she’s a homicidal murderer.
While the first movie teased at this twist in vague ways for most of its run time, it never really hit its stride until the last 20 minutes or so, when Esther’s secret, and her murderous intent, were out in the open. Fuhrman’s little orphan is a terrifying character, but one who’s ridiculously fun to root for, in large part because the whole concept is so silly. And the new movie retains every bit of fun you get from rooting for a villain.
Writer David Coggeshall (Scream: The TV Series) wastes no time getting into the mayhem, with an opening prison break that gives us a full unfiltered view of Esther as a coldhearted mastermind. After just a few minutes, Esther is already exactly where she should be: conning her way into an American family while planning to steal from and/or murder them.
This time, rather than putting herself up for adoption, she poses as the kidnapped daughter of a wealthy family who has miraculously returned. It may sound ridiculous that a family could be tricked out of recognizing their own daughter, but don’t worry, Coggeshall and director William Brent Bell (The Boy) clearly think it is too.
That is perhaps the defining characteristic of Orphan: First Kill: It’s a movie that’s in on all of its own best jokes. For instance, even with the character’s rare anti-aging condition, it’s still easy to see that Fuhrman, who originally played Esther as a convincing kid in 2009, is now a 25-year-old. But the movie treats Esther’s age as its own little inside joke, employing bits of good old-fashioned Hollywood magic to keep up the illusion in most scenes, then laughing off the moments when it can’t be hidden. It’s the kind of movie where the filmmakers would rather make all the other actors wear massive platform shoes than resort to digital de-aging, because they know special-effects trickery would ruin the bit.
Aside from how well the joke of a 25-year-old playing a 31-year-old playing a 9-year-old works, Fuhrman also proves she’s worthy of the movie’s age-hiding shenanigans. Her Esther is dripping with faux charm while still lacing each bit of dialogue with malice. It’s a gleeful combination that helps keep each of her scenes sneeringly fun and she smartly turns the dial up as the moment demands.
All this was true in the first movie, too, which is part of why it’s become a cult hit. It’s also why it’s such a waste that we never really get the greenlight to cheer for Esther. But that’s a problem Orphan: First Kill smartly rectifies by centering the movie on her instead of the family she’s trying to infiltrate. No matter how many people she kills, the script makes it clear that she’s still the movie’s protagonist, fully indulging in the same kind of guilty pleasure as rooting for Jason to kill off a fresh round of Camp Crystal Lake’s unfortunate residents.
The other key element that helps First Kill stay on its tonal tightrope is Julia Stiles (Hustlers), who plays Tricia Albright, the mother of the family Esther invites herself into. While Vera Farmiga’s mother character in the original movie is a broken woman, tortured by the malevolent girl she tries to help, Stiles’ character, a rich-girl heiress with secrets of her own, is every bit as unhinged as Esther herself, and deeply suspicious of her from the get-go. This gives Esther an opponent to go toe-to-toe with, and helps put the movie in the rich-people-are-weird Horror Hall of Fame. (It would make a tremendous double feature with 2018’s Thoroughbreds.)
Perhaps the one step back from the original movie is First Kill’s lack of scares. Rather than a more straightforward horror movie like the original, this one is more of a madcap slasher, only making room for a jump scare or two. Then again, there’s no way to recapture the specific kind of creepiness the first movie had.
While Orphan got a lot of mileage out of the idea that there might or might not be something seriously wrong with Esther, First Kill smartly plays with the fact that its audience already knows all her secrets. Bell also finds a suitable replacement for traditional horror by letting the bluntness of the movie’s violence and bloodshed provide its unsettling atmosphere, which pairs well with certain characters who have a terrifying lack of empathy that only Old Money can buy.
In spite of all conventional wisdom, Orphan: First Kill is a phenomenal slasher sequel. By finding the pitch-perfect tonal balance between bloodshed and fun, without ever slipping into outright comedy, First Kill winds up as a better, smarter, and more fully realized film than the original, and one of the best horror movies of the year.
Orphan: First Kill is in theaters now and available to stream on Paramount Plus.