Esther is one of the horror genre’s best characters. Not even of just the past 13 years, but maybe even of all time. Children can be truly terrifying. Damien (The Omen), Regan (The Exorcist), Samara (The Ring), I could go on. But the twist of Orphan – her secret – that made the film so fascinating added extra layers of shock and awe. If you haven’t seen the 2009 film, I would stop reading here. Its twist, if spoiled, would ruin all the fun of getting to know Esther. Truthfully, William Brent Bell’s Orphan: First Kill didn’t really need to exist, but we were only fed bits and pieces of information about the character the first time around. While this prequel’s viewing experience doesn’t compare, we get to meet Esther before she really became the character we know. It’s a treat for fans, and a film full of surprises.
Housed in Estonia’s Saarne Institute is Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman), its most dangerous patient. New employees mistake her for a child, but we know better. Still as cunning as we remember, she manages to escape the facility. Taking on the identity of a missing girl named Esther, she travels to America to be reunited with her family. The Albright’s, Tricia (Julia Stiles), Allen (Rossif Sutherland), and son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), are still reeling from her vanishing 4 years earlier, so they are ecstatic to welcome who they believe is Esther back into their lives. This whole idea seems very far-fetched at first. How could she find someone to impersonate so easily and get away with it?
Just like Orphan, the first half of the film follows Esther as she adjusts to her new home. These early scenes are a re-introduction to the character, but David Coggeshall’s screenplay remains faithful to how David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace wrote her previously. She’s still a spectral type who is able to make her presence known when unseen. She still has immense fears of being caught and expresses the paranoia that comes with that. She’s still a master of manipulation, knowing how to appear so innocent and sweet when diverting blame, and shifting on a dime to someone maniacal. She remains familiar, and so too do some elements of this latest outing. Like the Coleman’s in the first film, her dynamic with the Albright’s is similar. Both the mother and the brother become suspicious of Esther, while the father remains oblivious. But while this household seems like your typical rich, perfect, white family, they have their own buried secrets that Esther’s presence unearths, with everyone’s facade cracking in the process.
The main reason to watch Orphan: First Kill is for Isabelle Fuhrman’s return as the iconic character – and deliver that look again (you know the one). Fuhrman has a youthful appearance that helps her play a child convincingly, but now that she’s an adult it brings Esther’s story to a level of realism she couldn’t bring when she was 10 years old. She’s an adult playing a child – just like Esther is. Now she really has to put on that childlike front, and as an extraordinarily talented performer, this challenge comes with ease. No one is a match for Fuhrman, but Stiles comes close. At first, Tricia seems like a boring rewrite of Vera Farmiga’s Kate from the first film, but as things escalate, she snaps and becomes someone who gives Esther a real run for her money.
It takes great skill to bring Esther to life again, especially because Fuhrman, naturally, has grown and matured so much since she last put on those ribbons. Karim Hussain’s cinematography and Bell’s direction both work in tandem to make sure the camera moves and uses angles in a specific way so Fuhrman doesn’t look any bigger than a child. However, this is more difficult in fight scenes where her size is evident amongst the intense violence. The film’s production notes speak of the practical effects used, like placing Furhman next to Magnum bottles of wine or raising tables on apple boxes to make her look small. Having the rest of the cast wear platform shoes also helps to successfully alter perspective.
Orphan: First Kill could have been some lame rehash, but it’s more ridiculously fun than it has any business being. It has some twists of its own that transform it into the camp, hammy thriller that the first film only gave us a sliver of. It does lack the tension and increasing unease that its predecessor had, but this is simply due to us knowing Esther’s real identity. The ending also comes too quickly, lacking a slow, thought-out resolution between her and Allen. However, seeing how her modus operandi is shaped by her time with the Albrights makes her finally feel like a fully fleshed-out character. Her backstory is no longer only small pieces of information. We know it all, and she remains nevertheless intriguing. That alone makes this a must-watch for Orphan fans.