The Orphan series was not designed to bend time and space. It was not even designed to be a series. The 2009 original was a perfect-within-its-intentions one-off shocker featuring a particularly killer twist, which will be reviewed and spoiled presently: Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), initially presented as a nine-year-old adoptee with possible bad-seed tendencies, turns out to not be a demon child, or a child at all, but a murderous 33-year-old Estonian woman masquerading as a kid. Given that memorable narrative maneuver and Esther’s fate by the end of the movie, any Orphan follow-up—much less one coming 13 years later—would appear to be boxed into a corner.
William Brent Bell, the director of Orphan: First Kill (and not the first movie), knows a thing or two about wriggling out of a tight spot in order to bravely forge ahead with a horror sequel: He followed up his own The Boy, another well-twisted horror movie, with a sequel that attempted to take a newly minted gimmick-slasher in a different, franchise-preserving direction. Here, Bell has the unenviable task of replacing Jaume Collet-Serra, the director behind Orphan as well as The Shallows and some of the better Liam Neeson vehicles. What Bell gains, though, is a neo-scream queen in Isabelle Fuhrman, who in between Orphan movies plumbed psychological depths in The Novice and got cut out of an Escape Room 2 subplot (restored on a home video extended version). She returns for a look at Esther’s early years; the movie opens with her imprisoned in an asylum in Eastern Europe before she escapes and poses as the long-missing daughter of Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland).
This means that where a 12-year-old Fuhrman once played a secret 33-year-old, here she’s attempting to pass as a 10-year-old at her real-life age of 25. This is not exactly a plot twist, but it does provide a bold new definition for the circle of life, and an acting challenge as audaciously boldfaced, in its own way, as the original movie’s twist. Maybe more, given that it must be dealt with at the outset, rather than in a ratcheted-up climax. The combination of camera tricks and body doubles necessary to place Fuhrman back in Esther’s tiny shoes does, at times, risk reminiscence of the disaster-turned-cult comedy Clifford, starring Martin Short. Then again, what was Clifford if not a horror film in disguise? Moreover, the illusion—and sometimes lack thereof—works for a movie where the audience is now fully aware of Esther’s machinations. Keeping Fuhrman in the role helps the audience see Esther closer to how she sees herself: A resourceful, ruthless woman contorting herself into barely-childlike roleplay.
By sticking closer to Esther’s point of view, it may look like First Kill is adopting a time-honored horror-sequel move: making the crazed killer the de facto hero of the piece by propping up cardboard victims, prompting the audience to root for the formerly terrifying bad guy to perform zany kills. While that’s not too far afield from what First Kill is doing, the movie has a little bit more going on than imitating the first one’s motions. Yes, Esther again fixates on the family’s seemingly feckless father, using her artistic talent to impress him, while seemingly lurking in the shadows whenever her new parents are on the verge of sex. As before (or, chronologically, as will happen again later), Esther’s mother figure starts to eye her with suspicion, as does her older son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). At first, the major difference is Esther’s cruelty in pretending to be a child this family actually knows—a cosmic punishment for their hope.
Yet despite a misleading title, First Kill is more engaged with its own demented mythology than its more repetitive elements suggest. Bell and screenwriter David Coggeshall, working from a story by original Orphan screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, build on the first movie’s gothic aggression. They wring knowing laughs out of the bizarre sense of routine while taking clever advantage of the fact that while the family may look familiar, it’s Esther who the audience now knows better. Bell isn’t on Collet-Serra’s level as a stylist; First Kill looks cheaper than its predecessor. Its winter is less evocatively wintry, its tones softer and more diffuse. Some of it even looks oddly motion-smoothed. But as with The Boy, Bell does what he can within the limitations presumably handed to him. The movie’s ample mirror shots, shallow focus and flashes of gruesome imagery illustrate a world that shifts and distorts as Esther enters it.
Fuhrman has great fun incorporating her Novice determination into a less conflicted character, and Stiles is nearly as delightful, performing a different sort of time warp: Known for her seeming sophistication as a teen star, her obligatory buttoned-up horror-mom role turns out to be kind of a hoot. The whole movie is, really, as it distorts a decidedly modern franchise extension through a hall of spookhouse mirrors, refracting its silliness across decades. (Bell cues up a strutting Interpol needle-drop, to make sure we understand that the movie is happening in the 2000s.) Accordingly, Orphan: First Kill isn’t an especially scary movie, nor is its class-war commentary especially subtle or insightful. Through sheer force of personality, though, these elements are rendered immaterial. Like Esther, the movie has a keen sense of how to weaponize its own audacity.
Director: William Brent Bell
Writer: David Coggeshall
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland, Matthew Finlan
Release Date: August 19, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.