It’s a little strange to think that I share the same age as Isabelle Fuhrman who plays Esther. I was 12 when Orphan came out in 2009. And I still remember the delightful sense of it feeling forbidden to me. ‘There’s something wrong with Esther’. The poster artwork of a young girl in pigtails, with shadows welled up in her eye sockets like the passing years hardened on an older woman’s features? For all these reasons, I did not have the heart to watch it until only a few months ago. But as we get older, our relationship with movies from such formative years of our lives seems suspended in time. Until we too feel like a child in an adult’s body. Orphan: First Kill gave me that sort of impression.
It’s an impossible-sounding prequel. With all the secrets revealed at the end of the original, how could Leena Klammer, a.k.a Esther Albright, a 31-year-old woman with the looks of a young child and one mean gland disorder, ever shock us for seconds? And what could possibly be done about Fuhrman, nearly twice her age since the first? Despite all the obstacles of time and the simplest of means (stilts, body doubles, and forced perceptive), director William Brent Bell has given us a reason to fall once more for the artifice of movie magic, in a time when the practicalities of CGI carry little imaginative weight.
The film opens without artistic pretense, which seems all the more refreshing in an era of horror so insistent on meaning through metaphor and allegory. Leena has escaped from the Saarne Institute, wasting no time at all in committing her first kill. With her new-founded freedom, she takes a one-trip ticket to America. There, she impersonates the missing daughter of an upper-class family. However, if there’s one thing apparent about Orphan, things aren’t always what they seem to be.
It has all the makings, or should I say trappings, of some perverse fairy tale. Although the first half retreads some of the same old ground from the original, Bell’s bread crumbs leave behind only so much familiarity before viewers start to get lost in something entirely different. The film itself feels awash in a haze, similar to that of some half-remembered children’s program from our yesteryears.
Of course, this may be due to budgetary constraints or practical concerns over Fuhrman’s prosthetics. But it situates Orphan: First Kill and all its uncanniness to something akin to memory. Take, for example, the emotionally distant “stepmother” archetype (Julia Stiles). Or Esther’s isolation, heightened through her only companionship with a pet rat. Or the jealousy of her older brother. These make up the qualities of Disney’s most iconic tales, furthered by her being an orphan, the most fundamental archetype in all of storytelling.
Unfortunately, the screenwriters do not give Fuhrman enough to work with in this first half. Her character feels as much in stasis as being stuck in a nine-year-old’s body, or the last time we met Esther over 13 years ago. It’s a shame. For an origin story, it does very little to show the psychological development of such a master manipulator. Because we practically begin this origin in media res. Esther has already killed, even before the opening credits. (That’s why she was committed to Saarne in the first place). But what could have driven her? Where’s that story? Her identity, merely suggested in the original does not seem to exist here. That is, until the great reveal in the second half, where we encounter a different side to her character.
We can think of Orphan: First Kill as a late bloomer of a film. It pulls us along through all the familiar scenes of the original, all unadorned with winking references. Until Bell casts a black light across all the proceedings, revealing darker and stranger secrets hidden right there in the open. Skeptics can put aside their doubts, this twist gives the prequel justification alone for existing, shifting the dynamics that we thought once established. Esther, quite literally, has more significant troubles on her hands.
Although it does find its own original voice towards the end, sometimes it feels burdened with intention and self-awareness. In other words, it’s difficult to capture that obscure thing we call camp if there isn’t some form of naivete about it. As much as I love the original Orphan, I won’t deny that it is clumsy in the horniest way, brimming with awkward sex and more awkward sex. But it’s all handled in the most serious register. Taking on the appearance of “elevated horror” before A24 introduced us to such a thing. No wonder it became something of a cult classic, though I don’t expect that to happen with First Kill, despite its best attempts at silliness. It’s missing the purity of being so misguided in its artistry, so misaligned in its taste, that something entirely strange is unleashed in the process of its failure.
Still, Orphan: First Kill offers a particularly strong case for making horror fun again. It doesn’t require themes of trauma, mental illness, or religion to justify itself. Neither does Esther need to cower behind subtext to seem frightening. Fuhrman took me back to my first love of horror; for that reason, the 12-year-old in me is grateful. – Daniel Hrncir
Orphan: First Kill will be in theaters and streaming on Paramount + on August 19th.
The film stars Isabelle Fuhrman, Rossif Sutherland, and Julia Stiles.