In 2009, horror movie fans were gifted with the cult classic Orphan – a chilling story of a murderous woman targeting an unsuspecting family. While a bit formulaic, the original film was a standout hit thanks to its strong performances and iconic plot reveal. But does the prequel movie released over a decade later, Orphan: First Kill, live up to the original’s legacy? Spoiler alert, in theory, yes, but in practicality, no, not really.
On paper Orphan: First Kill does precisely what its trailers promise, and holds the essence of the original cult classic in buckets. Directed by William Brent Bell, the thriller movie is the prequel to Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2000s movie, which saw a 33-year-old murderer, Leena, posing as a 9-year-old orphan named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). In the new flick, Fuhrman reprises her role as Leena/Esther, showing us how the woman escaped from a mental institution in Estonia and how she first made her way to the United States to begin scamming and killing families.
Impersonating the missing daughter of the Albright family, Esther, Leena infiltrates her first affluent American household after the matriarch Tricia Albright (Julia Stiles) comes to pick her up. A dynamic similar to the first Orphan movie between the two then ensues.
Like the original Orphan flick, Orphan: First Kill’s plot essentially revolves around the relationship between ‘Esther’ and her sceptical new mother, Tricia, as Leena struggles to keep her secret long enough to kill the family and make off with all their money. On top of the psychological mind games between Esther and Tricia, other elements from the 2009 movie are also repeated in Bell’s film, such as Esther’s romantic feelings for the family’s father, and her creepy coded paintings.
Bell has obviously done his research, and for hardcore Orphan fans, there are tons of references to Esther’s past to enjoy throughout the film’s 99-minute runtime. Without giving too much away, there is also an unexpected plot twist which we all know is a must for an Orphan movie. In 2009, the big story reveal was that Esther was a 33-year-old woman with the physical condition Hypopituitarism instead of an innocent child.
Obviously, Orphan: First Kill had to deal with the fact that audiences knew Esther’s real identity. The shock and horror of that discovery had to be replaced with a new moment that was just as outrageous and unexpected. Without giving too much away, the film manages to deliver on such a moment.
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So, in theory, here is a prequel that has everything an Orphan film would need. It has the lore, the nostalgic plot, and the big gasp-worthy moment. But despite cracking the formula and giving us plenty of fan service, Bell’s horror never really finds its own stride.
While watching Orphan: First Kill, you can’t help but feel as if it’s being strangled by its own reverence to the original movie. From the 2000s reminiscent cinematography that replicates the cold tones of the 2009 film, to the step-by-step script that, until the aforementioned plot reveal, feels like a reskinned version of the original, the prequel struggles to distinguish itself or evoke feelings of excitement that you’d expect for a horror – because, at the end of the day, we already know the murderous antics Esther dishes out.
Fuhrman is utterly fantastic in this movie, and despite now being in her twenties, her performance feels doubly creepy, as she fully plays into an older woman posing as a child. The concept of Leena’s scam feels more real and disturbing as Fuhrman’s older face reminds us continuously of the truth behind Esther’s charade.
But despite the brilliant work from Fuhrmann, her on-screen moments that inspire constant unease aren’t enough to craft continuous tension and suspense – which at the end of the day is Orphan: First Kill’s biggest problem.
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The issue that all prequels face is that we tend to know their outcome from the get-go. In the case of Orphan: First Kill, we know Leena survives and steals Esther’s name permanently, before we enter the cinema. Unfortunately, Bell doesn’t craft enough hard-hitting stakes to keep us on our toes or subvert our expectations with that fact, and it often feels as if we are simply going through the motions instead of witnessing an eerie mystery unfold.
Hefty exposition is constantly used to try and explain why we should care about the family and later to reason all the plot twists. There is also overuse of dialogue filled with half-hearted swear words – employed to try and put us on edge when the flick’s story simply can’t. In short, Orphan: First Kills struggles to build up a frightening atmosphere or give us a clear party to cheer for in the Esther vs Tricia war.
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Now, don’t get me wrong, all of these criticisms aside, as a massive Orphan fan, I still had fun while watching Orphan: First Kill. The short runtime makes for a punchy pace, some deaths are gnarly as hell, and as mentioned above, Fuhrman is phenomenal as Esther. But, Orphan: First Kill, just isn’t as captivating as its predecessor, and firmly stays in the 2009 movie’s shadow.
Orphan: First Kill hits theatres and select streaming services on August 19, 2022.
Orphan: First Kill review
Here is a movie that is tons of fun, but what stops it from being a standout horror is its influx of homage and reverence for what came before it.