Orphan: First Kill (2022)

AUGUST 25, 2022


Even if it was the year 2010, I would write this same sentence: I am shocked that I am about to review another Orphan movie. Even a prequel, which Orphan: First Kill is, would have been a surprise, as the film (which ended pretty definitively with regards to its eponymous killer) was only the sort of mid-level hit that probably makes everyone happy but doesn't have them rushing to make more. Plus that era of horror was moving in different directions, which is why even some of that year's bigger hits (i.e. Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine) didn't get followups despite being tailor made to launch new franchises. Orphan was, for all involved (including me, a huge fan of it) seemingly a one and done.

And then last year they announced a prequel with the now adult Isabelle Fuhrman reprising her character, and my eyebrow raised higher than it has in quite some time (even weirder, it's a different studio - so it's not even a case of a desperate exec looking at their library and finding something to milk). And while I would have loved the return of Jaume Collet-Serra, I feel replacement William Brent Bell is a solid choice; I know folks are still (pointlessly) mad about Devil Inside, but apart from the misguided Boy sequel I've been a fan of more or less everything else he's done, and as the original Boy proved, he's a director who wasn't afraid to make an audacious reveal, which is what an Orphan film needs to deliver.

But how do you do that when we all know the first film's twist by now? (If you don't, stop reading!) Even if Esther survived for a sequel, we still know that she's really an adult with a gland disorder, so we can't really do the whole evil child routine again in any meaningful way. So they smartly go the prequel route, getting the explanation out of the way in its first sequence (acting as a recap even though it's chronologically earlier) and putting Esther in a different situation. Thanks to one new employee and a guard who has icky designs on her (you can almost hear some neckbeard in the crowd saying "But she IS an adult, so it's ok!") she is able to escape the institute and find a new family.

This time, instead of being adopted (speaking of which - yes, the prequel does smooth over the original's gap in her "institute to orphanage" transition), she pretends to be the long-missing daughter of a wealthy family, after finding her picture online and deciding that she could pass for the child if it's x number years later. Naturally there are some hiccups: she "forgets" that a grandmother died, the real Esther (yes, that's where she got the name, as her real name is Leena) didn't like to paint but she does, etc. But of course the real fun is seeing her murder her way out of a situation when necessary, such as when the cop who investigated the real Esther's disappearance seems to be suspicious of her story.

Up until that point, it's basically hitting a lot of the same notes as the original. I love that film enough to not mind too much; it was like getting a solid cover version of a song I loved, in that it wasn't going to replace the original anytime soon but it was enjoyable enough to have a fresh take. But then there's a plot twist, at which point I full on howled with gleeful laughter at the sheer insanity of what I realized the movie was actually going to be about. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it here, but suffice to say that my fear of a new Orphan being unable to measure up in sheer "wtf, are they really doing this?" were dispeled the second a certain character entered a scene and fired a gun.

Alas I can't say much else about the movie without tipping off the twists, so I'll just say that Fuhrman delivers another chilling performance, and the attempts to make her look like a little girl again are mostly successful. Her face obviously shows her age a bit, but since there's no need to hide it when she's alone (or with someone she's going to kill anyway) it mostly comes down to how well they pull off the size discrepancy, and they're on point there. Fuhrman is only five inches shorter than Julia Stiles (playing the real Esther's mom), but through the usual trickery (apple boxes, doubles, etc) you'll never notice. There's a shot here and there when the scale seems to be a bit off, but usually in moments that you can easily forgive it (i.e. exciting stunts). And even when she's surrounded by the characters who believe her to be a child, her adult face almost kind of works - more often than not they think she's weird or (in the parents' case) believe they've gotten back their toddler daughter after all these years, so naturally they're going to have that "you've gotten so much older!" reaction even if she WAS the real Esther. Long story short, it works just fine. Thank Marvel for the de-aging advancements.

I was also charmed that, despite being a prequel, it felt very timely with regards to a couple of rich prick characters who think they're invincible. Every now and then in the real world we see these sorts being held accountable, but not often enough, so in the same way Saw VI was cathartic for anyone who ever had to deal with health insurance companies, there's something quite enjoyable about seeing a rich prick get what they deserve. It's not like you're ever looking at Esther as the hero, but (unlike the original, in which she only killed innocent/good people) the script smartly lets us smile a little about a few of her deeds. And knowing the twist frees the filmmakers to have a little fun, like when she steals a car and blasts "Maniac" as she drives along. If it was the original (pre reveal) we'd just be rolling our eyes at the idea of a 9 year old being able to drive, but now we know she's been around long enough to learn, and we can just enjoy the scene for what it is.

Honestly I have no real complaints here; the only "problem" with the movie is that it's also debuting on streaming, which means it will be shown to half-focused eyeballs. The first half's relative samey-ness (though not without highlights, such as her escape) will almost certainly have people looking at their phones figuring they "got it", and the midway turn won't register as well. Being a traditional sequel (i.e. copying the beats) is exactly the point, to lull you into a sort of comfort zone only to pull the rug out from under you, but that might be lost on those who aren't giving it their full attention as they (presumably) would in theaters. Hopefully I'm wrong, but *looks around at the world* yeah, optimism is misguided these days. However you see it, I hope you agree that it's practically a miracle that it's even watchable given the long delay/seeming pointlessness of following up a movie with that particular twist. That it's within spitting distance of being just as good as the bonkers original? I bow to everyone involved.

What say you?

P.S. Can't spoil the particulars, but the climax features a visual reference to a rather "iconic" evil child movie that's actually a total snooze (hint: the title is ironic), and I can't help but feel the much different outcome is the filmmakers showing that tepid chore who's the boss.


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