Orphan: First Kill maintains the cuckoo spirit of the original

Orphan: First Kill

The wholly original horror flick is back, as enjoyably campy and implausible as before.

We’re currently in the middle of a horror renaissance, which makes it easier to forget what a bleak time the 00s were for fans of the genre. A dull selection of sequels, reboots and limp, watered down remakes of J-horror, with only a blessed few exceptions it seemed to be heading towards the same “death by ubiquitousness” as musicals had years earlier. Then, in 2009, horror was given a bizarre little jolt with Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, which starts off as a standard killer kid movie, a la The Bad Seed or The Good Son, then goes gloriously off the rails, with a twist that left audiences not just surprised, but shouting “What? What? What?” at the screen. 

Now, thirteen years later, we’re finally gifted with a prequel, Orphan: First Kill, a curious choice for a title considering it’s probably her third or fourth kill, but never mind. Isabelle Fuhrman returns as preteen Esther, whose perfect facade hides the fact that she’s really (cover your eyes if you haven’t seen the first movie) Leena, a 33 year-old Estonian psychopath with a “glandular disorder” that’s stunted her growth and allowed her to look like a child forever. I’ve seen Orphan, and I still can’t believe that happened.

In the first film, Fuhrman was 11 playing 33 playing 10. Now, she’s 25 playing 32 playing 9. Got that? You may want to write it down. Though they try some forced perspective and child stand-ins, and Esther wears pigtails and old-timey velvet dresses like she stepped out of a time machine from 1948, her “disguise” is even less convincing this time, but for a completely different reason. Nevertheless, the fact that she’s so hilariously unconvincing, let alone that all the other characters seem to accept her deception immediately, only enhances the camp value of First Kill. Obviously you’re not meant to take a single thing that happens in either of these movies seriously, so sit back and have a warm, soothing nonsense bath.

As the film opens, we learn that Leena has spent most of her adult life in an Estonian psychiatric hospital, her frequent violent outbursts designating her the most dangerous patient there. Cold, calculating, and very smart, you literally can’t turn your back on her for more than a second before she’s running at you with a crude weapon in her hand. It has to be assumed that, once Leena murders her way out of the hospital and escapes, the staff can’t be anything but relieved.

Orphan: First Kill (Paramount)

In the kind of plot contrivance you’ll simply have to ignore if you have any intention of enjoying these movies, Leena just happens to come across a missing child notice for Esther Albright, a little American girl who disappeared four years earlier, and to whom Leena bears a “close enough for horseshoes” resemblance.

Evidently with no questions asked by anyone (or curiously any media attention), Esther’s mother, Tricia (Julia Stiles), files to Estonia to claim Leena, bringing her back to America to live in the comically enormous house shared with Esther’s artist father Allen (Rossif Sutherland), and teenage brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). The fact that “Esther” now has an Eastern European accent, and can both play piano and paint like she’s had years of professional lessons, is, at best, shrugged off as “something that can happen” when a child is kidnapped (is it, though??). Even a psychiatrist, who really should be trained in these kinds of things, expresses only the mildest of concern that Esther’s story doesn’t line up. Although, considering how many people who really should have known better fell for Anna Delvey’s con (and she didn’t even have to kill anyone!), maybe it’s easier than we think, which makes you wonder why so many of us are wasting our time at these stupid “jobs.”

ANYWAY, using a conveniently placed diary (because six year-olds are known for keeping detailed journals recounting every part of their daily lives), Leena’s even able to “remember” a family trip Esther went on before she disappeared. It doesn’t really matter, though, because Tricia welcomes her back into the fold without hesitation, and Allen, despondent over the real Esther’s disappearance, is practically a brand new man when she seemingly returns, full of life and able to paint again (thank goodness, because it must cost a fortune to heat that mansion). Only Gunnar seems to think anything is amiss, treating Esther with chilly, detached politeness at best, and eyeing her with suspicion.

Obviously you’re not meant to take a single thing that happens in either of these movies seriously, so sit back and have a warm, soothing nonsense bath.

If you think that Orphan: First Kill is going to follow the same beats as its predecessor, it does, for a little while, predominantly in Leena setting her cap for Allen in the same way she does for poor, hapless Peter Sarsgaard in the first movie. Leena has the presence of mind to come up with elaborate plans to hide her identity and convince people that she’s a literal child, but just can’t keep her daddy issues in check, and that’s perhaps the best part about this outrageous franchise. I say “franchise” in the hope that they make six more of these, still with Fuhrman on board, sporting pigtails and ruffled frocks well into her forties like a modern Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. If they can make multiple Jason Bourne movies, certainly this can happen too.

And I haven’t even gotten to the twist! While not as over the top and “what the…” as the original, the twist here is at least as implausible, and so just as equally entertaining. You’ll probably figure out fairly early on who’s a secret villain here, but not likely how, or why, and the reveal is at a soap opera level of high camp. Did we really need dueling villains in a movie about a killer dwarf passing herself off as the perfect child? No, but we also didn’t need a movie about Elvis, and look how well that turned out.

Look, I’m not going to try to convince you that the Orphan movies are good, and anyone who does should be treated with the same kind of hostile suspicion that Gunnar has for Leena. But with their giallo touches, their commitment to outrageousness (Leena beats a concerned nun to death with a hammer in the first one!), and everyone involved playing it all completely straight, they’re an undeniably fun time. If anything, working with a lower budget that gives everything a cheap, made-for-TV movie sheen (not to mention unsubtly introducing a character to the tune of Interpol’s “Evil”), First Kill is even more entertaining. 

Horror may be a more formidable force in film than ever before, but it still leans towards the dour and the serious. “But what about trash?” you may be asking. “Where is the trash?” Friends, it’s here. Make it a Taco Bell night, watch Orphan, and then watch Orphan: First Kill immediately afterward. Think of the indigestion you’ll have the next day as a badge of honor. Dig in and eat it all, because it’s not good for you, but it’s delicious.

Orphan: First Kill premieres on Paramount+ August 18th.

Orphan: First Kill Trailer:

Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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