Orphan: First Kill Review: Gloriously Loony Camp Horror

It’s been more than a decade since Orphan. The mid-tier, one-and-done psychological horror thriller left an outsized impression on moviegoers. At the time, audiences went for its seemingly transgressive, subversive, ultimately ludicrous plot twist involving Esther / Leena, the supposedly ten-year-old “orphan” of the title. In a risky, potentially laugh-inducing, third-act reveal, gobsmacked audiences learned that the quick-to-anger, stab-happy Esther suffered not just from an unhealthy dose of sociopathy and rage against a cruel, unjust world. She also had an unspecified glandular problem that left her thirty-something body perpetually frozen in preteen form. As brilliantly portrayed by a then 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman (The Novice), Esther’s apparent demise in Orphan’s closing moments seemed to foreclose the possibility a direct sequel.

Never say never, of course. Where there’s intellectual property to revive and easy money to be made, movie studios and the executives who greenlight projects invariably find a way. That leads us directly to the William Brent Bell-directed Orphan: First Kill. Now 25, Fuhrman would seem too old to revisit Esther. However, thanks to movie magic, including makeup, soft filters, lighting, body doubles, and the old-school use of boxes or platforms to convey the illusion of a preteen Esther interacting with adult characters, “old” became less of an insurmountable problem and more of a resolvable issue.

Horror-inclined audiences, of course, still have to suspend their disbelief and buy into Fuhrman’s straight-faced, irony-free portrayal of the dangerously eccentric, preteen Esther. For those viewers who do, though, more than a few surface pleasures await. These include a deliberately extended prologue set in a run-down psychiatric hospital in Estonia that houses the deeply disturbed Esther two years before the story began in the 2009 film. Esther’s backstory gets filled in somewhat, although it’s nothing we didn’t know or couldn’t surmise. In a sign of feints and misdirection to come, the introduction of a sympathetic art therapy teacher, Anna (Gwendolyn Collins) suggests that audiences shouldn’t get too attached to new characters because they might not be around too long and/or suffer violent ends onscreen.

Prologue done and dusted, Orphan: First Kill moves on from Estonia to Darien, Connecticut, where Esther (actually Leena), masquerading as the long-lost, likely dead daughter of a wealthy American family, finds what she thinks will be a permanent home. The audience might know better, but Tricia Albright (Julia Stiles), a woman of independent means and the owner of a multi-wing mansion, her artist husband, Allen (Rossif Sutherland), and their entitled, college-bound son, Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), certainly don’t. At least initially, Allen welcomes the fraudulent Esther with open arms, relieved at the return of the daughter whose disappearance shattered his personal life. Tricia and Gunnar, however, are far more wary of Esther and her return to the family. Tricia she immediately spots inconsistencies in Esther’s story of kidnapping and abuse. Gunnar, meanwhile, is mostly irked because he enjoyed the perks of being the only child and doesn’t want to share the love with an interloper.

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While Orphan: First Kill can’t match the original film’s stand-out twist (few films can), it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Esther soon discovers that life as a member of an ultra-wealthy, privileged family isn’t what it seems. In fact, it might be more of a prison than the sanctuary Esther dreamed about when she decided to impersonate the “real” Esther. Even worse, the remaining Albrights might have one or more buried secrets of their own they’d rather Esther not discover. This twist sets up an intra-family conflict near the halfway mark that embraces the sheer lunacy of the campy premise while delivering a fair share of blood-spattered surprises, each one almost as satisfying as the last. Only a rush ending following a plot pivot lessens the overall enjoyment factor. By then, though, the audience isn’t just rooting for Esther to survive (she will somehow, of course), but to return at least one more time to wreak additional havoc on the curdled American Dream.

Orphan: First Kill opens theatrically in North America on Friday, August 19th.



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