Orphan: First Kill review – Esther is back in twisted prequel

Chris Tilly
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Orphan was a horror hit in 2009, and is now considered something of a cult classic. So it’s a surprise it’s taken this long to get a follow-up, and even more of a surprise that it’s a prequel. But while Orphan: First Kill has the same problem that afflicts most prequels, it’s also a worthy successor to the original.

The original Orphan was one of the sleeper hits of 2009, grossing four times its budget at the global box office. Some of that success was down to the classy cast – which included Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard – and a grandstanding central performance from young Isabelle Fuhrman. But most of it was due to the movie’s memorable twist. And to talk about this film, we’ll have to discuss that moment, so beware of 2009 Orphan spoilers ahead

The twist was that Esther, the sweet little Eastern European girl adopted by American parents, was nothing of the sort. Rather she was a 33-year-old woman with a gland disorder that meant her growth stopped at the age of 10.

Esther was also a brilliant con-artist who – when Dad rebuffed her romantic advances – turned homicidal, endeavouring to wipe the entire family out.

Bringing Esther back for Orphan: First Kill

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Leena/Esther incarcerated in the Saarne Institute.

With Esther seemingly dead at the end of the original movie, they’ve decided to travel back in time, giving the character something of an origin story. Meaning First Kill kicks off in Estonia in 2007, two years before the events of Orphan.

Proceedings commence with kindly art therapist Anna starting work at the Saarne Institute, where Esther – real name Leena – is incarcerated.

Her arrival owes more than a passing debt to Silence of the Lambs as Anna nervously moves through the dimly lit building while terrifying security procedures are explained.

Then she comes face-to-face with Leena, who clearly has patients and guards in the palm of her tiny hand. And before you know it, Anna is in serious trouble, and Leena is no longer incarcerated.

From Estonia to America

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Rossif Sutherland and Julia Stiles believe Leena/Esther to be their missing daughter.

Part of the fun of 2009’s Orphan is experiencing the film’s twists and turns as they happen, and the same is true of First Kill. So rest assured we won’t spoil any of the big stuff here.

But what follows initially sticks to the original’s playbook. Leena again infiltrates a family, this time by impersonating their missing daughter – Esther Albright – hence the name change.

This plan gets her from Estonia to America, and living in the lap of luxury as her new Connecticut family just happen to be rich. But as with the first film, they don’t live happily ever after, and very soon, people start dying.

Who plays Esther in Orphan: First Kill?

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Older Isabelle Fuhrman plays a younger Esther in the prequel.

Other than being a prequel, maybe the most surprising aspect of Orphan: First Kill is that Isabelle Fuhrman again plays the villain. Not because of her performance, as she was spellbinding then, and is just as good now.

Rather because in that film she was a kid playing a woman pretending to be a kid. And now she’s a woman playing a woman pretending to be a kid.

Fuhrman is more than a decade older here, but rather than use CGI to make her more youthful, director William Brent Bell takes a practical approach, utilizing make-up, forced perspective, and child actors as stand-ins.

Those methods don’t always work, but the way Fuhrman dominates the screen means it rarely matters, and sometimes improves the viewing experience. As the fact that we are watching an adult performing some of the film’s more suggestive material makes First Kill feel less queasy than the original. While the way the more mature Fuhrman now manages to elicit sympathy for her monstrous creation is downright awe-inspiring.

Reverse engineering Orphan

isabelle-fuhrman-as-esther-in-orphan-prequelOrphan: First Kill is Esther’s supervillain origin story.

Screenwriter David Coggeshall – working from a story by Orphan scribes Alex Mace and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick – has fun reverse engineering the 2009 film.

So we witness Leena’s transformation into Esther by donning ribbons, adding photos to her Bible, hearing Jimmy Durante’s ‘The Glory of Love’ for the first time, and learning how to create blacklight art. They are fun flashes forward to the original that frequently make First Kill feel like a supervillain origin story.

The film also slyly addresses accusations of racism that were levelled at Orphan, so where 2009 could be seen as anti-Eastern European, 2022 takes aim at white privilege, and does so in a blackly comic way.

Indeed First Kill frequently leans into the dark humor of the first, featuring some fantastically offensive insults when the proverbial hits the fan, with Esther called everything from a “deformed freak,” and “mutant grifter,” to a “psycho dwarf.”

The Verdict – Is Orphan: First Kill good?

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Our verdict is that Orphan should be an ongoing franchise.

All of which makes for a hugely entertaining movie, the best bits of which we haven’t revealed here. But First Kill still suffers from the prequel problem of a lack of jeopardy, as we know where Esther is heading, meaning we’re also patently aware that she’s never in any genuine danger.

Fans of the first will also know how things turn out here, but the fun is in seeing how the film’s heroes and villains arrive at that destination, and the writers have still managed to build several surprises into the story.

Meaning First Kill is a twisted Orphan prequel that captures what made the first film work, then cuts its own swathe through the slasher landscape.

But as we possibly, maybe, definitely didn’t see her die at the end of the original, Esther needs a proper sequel next time out. Both because she’s a complex villain who is filled with celluloid potential. And also because Isabelle Fuhrman is spectacular in the role, and deserving of her own ongoing horror franchise.

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