Orphan: First Kill will be in theaters and on Paramount+ on Aug. 19, 2022.
William Brent Bell’s Orphan: First Kill is a head-scratching prequel on paper that defies its conceptual odds. Writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and David Coggeshall crack a code in Alex Mace’s story that somehow subverts expectations despite the plot’s reveal in 2009’s Orphan. An Estonian mental facility escapee, a con artist’s crossing into America, her ruse as a missing girl now found — it’s all backstory conveyed in Jaume Collet-Serra’s bonkers thriller. Not only that, but the supposed orphan’s chameleon trick has been revealed already in Esther’s identity. How could Bell recreate all that suspense and obscurity when we already know what’s happening? Cleverly and shockingly, the answer is simple: he doesn’t.
Orphan: First Kill turns back the clock on Esther despite actress Isabelle Fuhrman aging over a decade, telling about the European jailbird’s beginnings in Connecticut. By posing as Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and Tricia Albright’s (Julia Stiles) lost daughter, the middle-aged patient suffering from a growth disability assumes her role as a beloved child. It’s the same concept of Orphan, which lulls us into a sense of familiarity that’s quite aggressively overturned maybe halfway into Orphan: First Kill. A picture-perfect family is manipulated by a criminal who passes as elementary school aged while we watch in disbelief — but Bell’s production has more than one wicked trick up its sleeve. The American dream once again shatters, but in a prequel that dissociates as hard as fencing prodigy Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) pushes away his not-actual sister.
Fuhrman’s ability to tap back into Esther’s childlike mannerisms is on display as the 25-year-old actress has to play 8 years old again, reportedly with minimal digital effects regarding physical attributes. Bell’s ability to manipulate Esther’s figure using lighting, body doubles, and specific shooting angles keeps Esther deceptively juvenile when Fuhrman’s not allowed to break her character’s playground costume. A considerable obstacle of Orphan: First Kill is the believability of an already preposterous home invasion scenario, which Bell manages to execute through Hollywood magic. No fancy de-aging technology or deep fakes — Esther thrives thanks to both Fuhrman’s portrayal of an American Girl dolly come to life and Bell’s transformative filmmaking techniques. It’s a welcome return, watching Esther confound and terrorize an affluent household as a knee-high tormentor who coyly smiles and plays puppetmaster with such sociopathic glee.
Care is taken to establish Esther’s villainous habits in Orphan, whether that’s learning to paint her darkest thoughts in invisible UV blacklight colors or earlier examples of a masterfully diabolical manipulator. Orphan: First Kill functions as an information-packed prequel, but is best when it differentiates itself in unexpected ways. All that relies on the performances of Julia Stiles and Matthew Finlan, when the facade of suburban royalty dissipates in front of Esther’s eyes. A stricter tone about Orphan is jettisoned, ensuring Orphan: First Kill feels chaotically ambitious and banana-pants unfathomable. Spotlighting such storytelling wins in detail would require spoilers, so you won’t find further explanation here — but understand that it’s a joy to watch Esther, Gunnar, and Tricia tiptoe around each other. Stiles is firing on all cylinders with respect paid to her Dexter role, stoking dangers that aren’t pure replications of Orphan.
Bell embraces more of his Stay Alive and Wer styles here, which makes Orphan: First Kill more successful than his recent work on The Boy or Brahms: The Boy II. It’s never bluntly horrific but still unnerving in twist-the-knife character developments. Orphan: First Kill feels like an unbridled relic from the ‘90s like James Wan’s Malignant, both stab-happy brutal and effectively unhinged as revelations unfold. A war of ruthless wits and betrayal rumbles within the Albright’s estate, hardly the opening chapter Orphan fans might predict. It would have been so easy to see precious little Esther tear another marriage apart from within — Orphan: First Kill ditches the easy route, and that’s why it’s able to feel like fresh franchise advancement while working backward into territories once presumed understood.
Still, there are struggles despite creative freedoms that swing so heroically hard. Rossif Sutherland’s warm father prototype feels underplayed as the patriarch coming out of his shell, only to be hurtling towards heartbreak once again. The overall finale feels slight and rushed given the standoff established, as Esther’s inferno payoff doesn’t wholly equate to the excitement of her predatory behaviors and what transpires. Bell’s command as director is suitable but never flourishes beyond adequate shot selection that’s so missing the extravagance and sumptuousness that Collet-Serra indulges in his horror projects. Orphan: First Kill is carried by pitch-savvy performances and reckless screenwriting — other aspects struggle, especially before the film reaches overdrive once an explosive twist alters everything.