de facto film reviews 3 stars

Rhoda the Bad Seed, Damien, Regan, The Grady Twins, The Children of the Corn and a multitude of others. Creepy children are a long-standing tradition of horror cinema. When Orphan came out in 2009, it initially seemed like Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the main character of that film, would simply be another in that list. But by way of a clever late-film twist, Esther turned out to actually be Leena Klammer, an adult with a rare genetic condition. She took advantage of the childish stature her condition caused to manipulate and destroy at least two families that the film showed or discussed. When this prequel was announced, with Fuhrman returning to the role, it was hard to see how the film would be anything but a tired retread. But the filmmakers found a wonderful twist to keep their film fresh.

Because the audience presumably already knows the twist from the original film, no pains are taken to disguise Leena’s true identity in Orphan: First Kill. The film opens with an art therapist named Anna (Gwendolyn Collins) coming to work at the Saarne Institute, the Estonian mental hospital referenced in the original film. Leena uses her manipulative ways to escape captivity, eventually turning up at Anna’s home and murdering her to give herself time to plot her next move. While surfing a website for missing children, Leena notices that she has a striking resemblance to the age-progressed photograph of a girl named Esther Albright who has been missing for several years. She pretends to be Esther and goes to the authorities, who connect her with the local U.S. embassy to be “returned” to the Albright family. Mother Tricia (Julia Stiles) and father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) are overjoyed to have their daughter back, though surprised at some of the family lore she has forgotten and amazed at some of the skills (art, piano, cooking) she seems to have picked up during the years of her abduction. Brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) mostly seems caught up in his own teenage drama. One who is not particularly convinced is Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa), who drops by to check on the family and surreptitiously takes Esther’s fingerprints. Leena gets suspicious, and Inspector Donnan soon gets a visitor at home. Here, at about the 50-minute mark of the film, it takes its own surprise turn, which is too good to give away.

Orphan: First Kill movie review (2022) | Roger Ebert

Overall, Orphan: First Kill is a successful horror prequel. The biggest strength of the film is the screenplay, written by David Coggeshall with story credits given to the screenwriter and story writer of the original film, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, respectively. The film is a little slow in the initial build-up, but goes to some wonderfully strange places, particularly following the twist. It also builds very well on the framework of references to Esther’s first family in the U.S. that were dropped in Orphan. There is late scene which involves Esther driving which is one of my favorite film moments so far for 2022.

The performances are mixed. Fuhrman, who was very good as a child actor in the original film brings solid work to this prequel as well. Now being twenty-five, she no longer has a child’s face, which leads to a bit of a strain on the suspension of disbelief that she is being accepted as a nine year old, despite the character’s height. But she established the character of Esther so well, that it would have been a shame to replace her for the new film. And she has great moments in this film as well, really playing up the manipulative power of Esther. One thing of note is that her accent work is not as steady in First Kill as it was in the original film, which is something of a surprise. Julia Stiles is excellent as Tricia, portraying the various sides of her character with consistent believability. Stiles is given a lot to do and does it all well. Sutherland is given less to do, and comes off a little stiff, though he is serviceable in the role.

Orphan First Kill twist shows what the movie should have been

Director William Brent Ball, who has made a career of horror, including the The Boy films and 2012’s The Devil Inside, does similar journeyman work here. The film is certainly not badly directed, there is just nothing to make it particularly stand out. If this screenplay had been given to a director with a sense of cinematic language matching the strength of the writing, Orphan: First Kill could have been one of the great horror sequels instead of just an entertaining night at the movies. One particularly egregious filmic sin is the heavy use of CGI fire late in the story. Whether for budget or safety reasons, I understand that CGI fire must sometimes be used. But the lack of reaction that many actors, in this film and others, have to it, strains believability. When an entire hallway and staircase are on supposedly on fire and we see a character walk down those stairs calm and collected, it hurts a film. Overall, Orphan: First Kill is better than it had any right to be, but not quite as good as it could have been given the building blocks that ended up being available. It should please fans of the first film and horror fans generally.