Review: Prequel Orphan: First Kill Entertains with the Subtlety of a Lifetime Drama

Let me get this straight: the talented 25-year-old actor Isabelle Fuhrman (The Novice) is once again playing the character of Esther, last seen in 2009’s Orphan, in which [spoiler alert] the big reveal is that Esther is actually a 30-year-old woman with a genetic defect that makes her look about 10. Oh, and her pig-tailed self is also a con artist and occasional psychotic murderer who passes as an innocent child to get into the homes of rich families so she can rob them blind. So with Orphan: First Kill, we get a bit of Esther’s (real name: Leena, it turns out) back story, in which she escapes from a mental hospital in her homeland of Estonia in 2007 and pretends to be a kidnapped American girl named Esther Albright, who has been missing for several years.

This nut-ball movie opens with the soon-to-be Esther killing a bunch of hospital workers (or having them killed by the other unstable patients), searching the internet for missing American girls that look like her, and making her way to the states, complete with her vaguely Eastern European accent and clothes that make her look like a creepy doll from the late 1800s. Seriously, I’m surprised co-lead credit wasn’t given to the younger person who is clearly doubling for Esther whenever they show her from behind, which is frequent. I’m guessing there wasn’t much money for face-replacement effects in Orphan: First Kill, so we only get head-and-shoulders shots of Fuhrman’s face and a whole host of shots of some much shorter person playing her the rest of the time.

Directed by William Brent Bell (The Boy, Brahms: The Boy II, so he has some experience with movies about short killers) and penned by David Coggeshall (a co-screenwriter on the recent Prey), the movie starts out as you might expect, with Esther looking for clues into the real Esther’s life to better pass herself off as the girl, who is being closely watched by her socialite mother (Julia Stiles), artist father (Rossif Sutherland), and douchebag older brother (Matthew Finlan), as well as a curious detective (Hiro Kanagawa), and the occasional doctor or therapist. But at about the halfway point, the film takes a sharp left that I did not see coming, and it has to do with the real reason Esther went missing in the first place. As a result, the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the surprisingly resourceful Esther and those in her orbit who know she isn’t who she claims to be, and it doesn’t take long for her to be pitted against everyone when her secret is forced into the open. 

Orphan: First Kill has the sophistication and subtle charm of a Lifetime movie in which the title is also the plot summary (My Father Must Die, Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear, Stalked By My Doctor), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wildly amusing and occasionally entertaining. There’s absolutely nothing scary about this movie, and even the tension levels here are pretty mild, but Fuhrman’s dead-eyed portrayal of Esther can still elicit a few chills, and I have to give points for Stiles for truly selling the role of a mother who will do anything to keep her family intact, even if it’s almost as psychotic as Esther. This is clearly not one of the better horror movies of 2022, but it is the best prequel about a 30-year-old pretending to be a kid in order to murder people that you’ll see this year, and that has to count for something.

The film is now playing theatrically and available to stream on Paramount+.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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