“Orphan,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by David Leslie Johnson, is a stone-cold modern classic. Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Jimmy Bennett, and Karel Roden are so mind-blowingly excellent in it. Jeff Cutter’s bone-chilling cinematography, Timothy Alverson’s crisp editing, and John Ottman’s anxiety-inducing score come together to make this nightmare so tangible that you can feel Esther (Fuhrman) breathing down your neck. The twist was transgressive back in 2009, and it continues to be so even now. But since the jig is up, how does one recreate the magic of the original or build on it? By retreading old ground? Or by introducing a new twist that’s more dangerous than the original? Well, “Orphan: First Kill” technically does both of those things. However, the execution is so bad that you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it.
Directed by William Brent Bell and written by David Coggeshall, with David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace penning the story, “Orphan: First Kill” is evidently a prequel to “Orphan.” It starts in Estonia in 2007, where Anna Troyev (Gwendolyn Collins) visits the infamous Saarne Instituute. There she chances upon Leena (Fuhrman) and gets the whole backstory from Dr. Novotny (David Lawrence Brown) about how she’s a 31-year-old woman suffering from hypopituitarism. Which is why she looks like a child but isn’t one. She has apparently killed seven people and an entire family. That’s why the mental asylum is her home now. But, as you can imagine, Leena manages to escape from there. She goes to Anna’s place, kills her, and assumes the identity of a missing American child, Esther Albright. The Albrights, assuming that it’s their missing daughter, take her in, and chaos ensues.
If “Orphan: First Kill” wasn’t released simultaneously in theaters and on OTT platforms, it could’ve been written off as a blatant attempt to cash in on the first film’s nostalgia. But since that’s not the case, it appears to be the result of the studio’s need to ride the trend of sequels and hold on to the IP. Because nothing about it screams that it’s a movie made out of passion for “Orphan” or a response to the high fan demand for a prequel. From the first few frames themselves, Bell and his team make it clear that they’ve written themselves into a corner. And the jarring cuts between the adult Fuhrman and her child stunt doubles, the flaky gore, and the out-of-the-blue faux one-shot, all of it make it seem like the filmmakers are desperately thrashing around to make the movie engaging.
For nearly 50 minutes, “Orphan: First Kill” goes on like this, thereby making for a boring viewing experience. There’s some mild tension regarding Esther’s identity and why she’s going to kill the Albrights (that’s not a spoiler because it’s mentioned in the first film). But since most of it looks like a rehash of what we’ve seen in “Orphan,” it simply doesn’t make an impact. So, if you switch the movie off or walk out of the theater before the 50-minute mark, please know that it’s not your fault. However, if you do manage to tolerate it beyond that point, you are going to be rewarded with a twist that seriously comes out of left field. It elevates the movie from “bad” to “this is so bad that I’m actually enjoying it.” And then it goes into such a downhill slide all the way to the outlandish ending that it’ll have you in splits.
Credit where credit is due, the writers do delve into Esther’s mental state. They show us how aware Esther is of her physiological predicament. She knows that she can’t have a normal life, marry an age-appropriate man, and have a family. So, she always tries to hijack one and hopes that it works out. In “Orphan,” she came really close to succeeding because she was very meticulous about her manipulative tactics and omitted the people who were looking to out her. “Orphan: First Kill” kind of explains why she needed to be so particular because she couldn’t risk running into someone like the Albrights again. Which is a roundabout and non-spoiler way of saying that the Albrights are not at all like the Colemans. The execution of these themes and subplots isn’t in any way competent. But, maybe, that’s what makes this obviously trashy film so watchable.
Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles are the stars of the movie, and they are excellent actors. In Fuhrman’s case, you should definitely check out her work in “The Last Thing Mary Saw” and “The Novice.” As for Stiles, just go and watch her in “Riviera,” “Dexter,” the Bourne trilogy, “Mona Lisa Smile,” and, of course, “10 Things I Hate About You”. That’s because, for a large section of “Orphan: First Kill,” they sleep-walk through their respective roles. And that can give you the impression that they don’t know how to act. At the cost of sounding repetitive, it’s during the final 40-minutes that Fuhrman and Stiles begin to flex their acting chops, which crescendos with that bizarre climax. Matthew Finlan is actually great, as he alternates between being empathetic and being outright snarky and devilish. Rossif Sutherland and Hiro Kanagawa didn’t deserve to be treated like this.
In conclusion, “Orphan: First Kill” doesn’t hold a candle to “Orphan.” There is no way to say for sure, but there’s a good chance that even the filmmakers were aware of that. So, they didn’t try to match it. Instead, they made something so wacky that it supersedes all definitions of “good” and “bad” and becomes enjoyable, but in an ironic way. Everything from William Brent Bell’s direction to the writing by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, Karim Hussain’s cinematography, Josh Ethier’s editing, the performances by Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles, and Brett Detar’s music is technically horrendous. There’s no doubt about that. So if you intend to watch it, don’t try to analyze it critically or draw parallels with the original. Gather your friends, soldier through the first 50 minutes, and then laugh your minds off while cruising through the last 40 minutes.