Orphan: First Kill lacks the pulpy playfulness and satirical intent of the original, entirely misunderstanding its appeal and rendering this sequel an underwhelming curiosity at best.
A modest box office success in its 2009 release window, Jaume Collet-Serra’s high concept, psycho child thriller Orphan didn’t make a huge cultural impact at the time, yet some combination of its provocative, bad taste premise and much-teased twist ending (talked down on by large chunks of the critical establishment in such a way that one had to see it for themselves) earned it a lingering reputation in the broader consciousness. And although its one often expressed in the form of semi-ironic meme, there are legitimate reasons to appreciate Orphan, a movie with a rather esteemed cast (Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard) and production team (Leo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, Joel Silver/Rob Zemeckis’ Dark Castle), not to mention Collet-Serra at the height of his creativity, a few years off from wider acceptance of his credibility as genre auteur. But naturally, it’s Isabelle Fuhrman’s unabashedly nasty performance as Esther, the homicidal, covetous “orphan” of the title (actually a 30-something adult with a rare form of dwarfism), that’s obviously responsible for pushing the film into the realm of the iconic, the then 12-year-old actor holding her own against her established adult peers and confidently owning the grim, problematic spirit of the character.
Thirteen years on and Orphan is more popular than ever, with the Esther character now semi-canonized within the context of contemporary horror film. And so, it makes some sense that here we are with a prequel, Orphan: First Kill, arranged by original production company Dark Castle now working with Entertainment One and releasing on Paramount+ (with a small theatrical run, too). While a return to the Orphan universe isn’t inherently unappealing, one this late on and apparently conceived in response to social media chatter inevitably invites skepticism — skepticism that Orphan: First Kill never manages to dispel. Checking in with Esther (originally Leena; once more played by Fuhrman) in her early days at an Estonian psychiatric facility, David Coggeshall’s screenplay quickly has her escaped and assuming the identity of an ultra-wealthy American family’s (Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland) missing daughter in quick order, getting the devious, faux-orphan back into her old routine with some efficiency. Pulpy and sleazy as it was, the first Orphan film’s provocations (namely, Esther’s attempted seduction of Sarsgaard’s adoptive father character) were knowing and came with satirical intent, whereas Orphan: First Kill refashions this villain into more of an anti-hero, her actions from the first film recontextualized as morally compromised yet sympathetic, sometimes even justified. Both a funny and dumb direction to take this character, its also fairly unconvincing, a mid-film twist repositioning Esther as the explicit hero of the story, in opposition to a deranged white bourgeoisie.
Director William Brent Bell has been down this path before with his cumbersomely titled Brahms: The Boy II, a project greenlit only after comparisons between its title doll boy and Jared Kushner got incessantly memed on Twitter, and though one can understand the desire to ground this now more than a decade old IP in our current time more firmly, moments — such as the two occurrences of Esther being denigrated as a “mentally ill, immigrant dwarf” — demonstrate the embarrassing shortcomings of this approach. Shot in a digital high-def that appears motion-smoothed in places, Orphan: First Kill isn’t super appealing to look at either; functional enough, but not many big visual ideas outside of lighting the climactic set piece neon purple. Fuhrman (once again) stands out as the strongest element of this production (Stiles with some significant asterisks), as good an actor as ever and able to slip back into this role as if she hadn’t full on matured into adulthood since the last time she took it on. But while her achievements here are undoubtedly impressive, it’s simply not enough to elevate this late-to-the-game sequel above mere curiosity status.
You can catch William Brent Bell’s Orphan: First Kill in theaters and streaming on Paramount+ beginning on August 19.