Esther Is Back and Ready to Play in Bonkers Prequel Orphan: First Kill

As it turns out, there was always something wrong with Esther. Surely you didn’t forget about Esther, played with startling confidence by then-tween Isabelle Fuhrman, in 2009’s Jaume Collet-Serra-directed Orphan. Beyond Fuhrman being entirely up to the task of playing (stop now if you haven’t seen this 13-year-old film) an insane 33-year-old woman with proportional dwarfism who passed herself off as an angelic 9-year-old girl to be adopted, the film itself was a daring, deliciously nutty, and uncommonly well-acted mid-Dark Castle Entertainment genre treat. In some ways, it even felt like the Bad Seed movie Brian De Palma never got around to making.

That’s right—Orphan presented a reveal no one could possibly see coming (not unlike the humdinger in Sleepaway Camp), and yet it also held up well to scrutiny. Now we have an Esther-come-lately prequel set two years before Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard were charmed to pieces and adopted Esther into their family. With the secret already out, Orphan: First Kill couldn’t possibly carry the same fucked-up novelty as its predecessor, right? Directed by William Brent Bell (The Boy and Brahms: Boy II), this origin story of sorts is also missing Collet-Serra’s sinister, macabre-dripping panache. But, considering one might have predicted not much for Orphan: First Kill, it surprisingly has a different card to play.

Allen (Rossif Sutherland) stands next to wife, Tricia (Julia Stiles), holding her close.

All-grown-up Isabelle Fuhrman does return as Leena Klammer, a psychopathic con woman who will soon claim the name “Esther.” It’s 2007 in Estonia, where Leena is deemed the “most dangerous patient” in the Saarne Institute. Almost as soon as new worker Anna (Gwendolyn Collins) comes to the mental institute, Leena makes her escape into the world. Meanwhile, Connecticut couple Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen Albright (Rossif Sutherland) are still coming to terms with the disappearance of their daughter Esther four years ago. Once Detective Dornan (Hiro Kanagawa) tracks them down, he gives them the news: Esther is alive and well after being kidnapped and taken to Moscow. As Tricia, Allen, and their fencing-champion teenage son, Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), get used to Esther now speaking in a Russian accent, little do they know that the little painter/pianist is an imposter with a murderous streak.

The original film’s screenwriters, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, conceived the story for this prequel, so perhaps Orphan: First Kill makes for a warranted story worth telling after all. The first half or so is business-as-usual, with Esther pulling the strings and ingratiating herself with Daddy in the role of the Albrights’ daughter. Outsiders see right through Leena’s performance, and the viewer just waits for the other shoe to drop. We also get to see the origins of Esther’s love for the song “The Glory of Love” and making paintings with fluorescent paint. There’s even a callback to Esther’s bathroom tantrum from the first film, this time on a private jet. Besides filling in blanks that didn’t necessarily need to be filled, writer David Coggeshall’s devil of a script is surprisingly clever when it takes an unexpected (and darkly funny) turn. Since we know Esther can’t die in this film, all bets are off for the family she terrorizes.

Esther touches something on a mantle

Whereas Orphan just seemed like one more variation on The Bad Seed, it had another trick up its sleeve. Like an evil little twin, Orphan: First Kill has its own ace in the hole. Saying anything more would spoil the fun. Jaume Collet-Serra brought a certain elegance and legitimacy to his film, while director William Brent Bell seems less interested in taking this material seriously since we already know Esther’s secret. Or, Bell is taking it dead-serious and, hence, this is approaching a level of camp. Either way, what a twisted delight it is to watch director Bell and now-25-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman try to pull off the impossible. You might be wondering; how does this conceit even work if Fuhrman is supposed to be playing a 31-year-old playing a little girl if the actress herself is older now than she was in the 2009 film? Well, movie magic! Or, Fuhrman squats a majority of the time when standing next to her co-stars. It’s staged much better than it sounds, and whenever Esther is shot from the back, Fuhrman has two young actresses doubling for her. That this technique works even a little bit is, frankly, astonishing.

Once again, Fuhrman is able to turn on the smile and quickly morph it into a menacing glare. She’s as chilling here as she was more than a decade ago, but without anything to hide, Fuhrman seems to be having even more fun this time. In one hilariously warped moment, Esther steals the family vehicle, only to light up a cigarette and blast “Maniac” because… she’s a maniac! Playing opposite Fuhrman is Julia Stiles, who isn’t just playing a variation on Vera Farmiga’s Kate from Orphan. Farmiga was more than just a grieving mother being duped. Likewise, Stiles (with her innate intelligence) gets more to do than expected as Tricia, and this is a side we don’t ordinarily see from her.

In spite of some technical faults—washed-out digital cinematography that seems to sharpen as the film goes on, and some dodgy fire effects late in the film—Orphan: First Kill is a nasty, bonkers hoot. As it was probably meant to be watched, enjoy it with your Esther-loving friends and some strong cocktails.

Paramount Pictures is releasing Orphan: First Kill in theaters, on digital, and streaming on Paramount+ on August 19, 2022.


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Written by Jeremy Kibler

Jeremy is a film graduate from Penn State University, an Online Film Critics Society member, and altogether a film obsessive. He lives to watch the latest horror releases and write about them.

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