Spoiler Warning: This review will quickly spoil the major twist revealed at the end of Orphan (2009), but not for Orphan: First Kill (2022) because I’m not a sadist.
There’s something wrong with Esther, and it has been for much longer than her childlike façade would suggest. In fact, the artist formerly known as Esther is actually a 30-year-old Estonian woman by the name of Leena Klammer who suffers from a rare form of hypopituitarism, a hormonal disorder preventing her from growing past the optics of a 9-year-old girl. This twist at the end of Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2009 “evil-kid horror” film Orphan cemented what could’ve been another clone of The Bad Seed or The Omen into something entirely more unsettling, pulpy, and just plain fun than anything before it. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one that sent my packed opening night crowd at the Northgate Stadium 10 in Durham, North Carolina, into an absolute frenzy when it was revealed. I immediately brought as many friends as I could to see it to show them the absolute madness this small, albeit Leonardo DiCaprio-produced, horror film could provide.
Given the concrete ending to Orphan, it seemed like that was the end of Esther/Leena’s (I’m going to call her Esther as it’s more recognizable) story, and that still isn’t incorrect. Orphan is indeed the end of the road for Esther, but what about all of the previous incidents with Esther that are vaguely mentioned in passing in Orphan? What happened there? That’s where Orphan: First Kill comes in swinging.
There’s a big problem with this plan, however. Esther is nothing without the career-making performance of then-11-year-old Isabelle Fuhrmann, and as every child does, Fuhrmann grew up. While most filmmakers would take this as a sign that Orphan was a one-time-only affair; to recast Esther with another child actress, or take the approach that Disney is taking with so much content by digitally de-aging older actors into younger roles, William Brent Bell took another approach. Bell approached Fuhrmann’s presence with clever usages of lighting, camera angles, body doubles, and makeup. Take into account the context of the first film’s twist and Orphan: First Kill might just work by way of The Lord of the Rings more than The Book of Boba Fett.
Two years before the events of Orphan, Leena Klammer is imprisoned in the high-security Saarne Institute in Estonia. After using her deadly wit to wiggle her way out of their grasp, she develops a plan to impersonate the missing daughter of the Albright family, Esther, who disappeared four years prior. While father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) is overjoyed by their daughter’s reappearance, mother Tricia (Julia Stiles) begins to fear that this might not be the Esther they remember. As Tricia’s suspicion around her “daughter” grows, so does Esther’s erratic, violent behavior.
Off the bat, Orphan: First Kill is operating on a completely different wavelength than the first film, obviously due to the major twist of Orphan now being well-known by anyone watching this film. We’re coming into the film knowing this is no mere little girl, and because of that, much of the film’s escalating “bad kid” antics that turn into sociopathic violence is eschewed directly to said violence. This gives Esther a much more mythical, almost horror-icon presence in the film, more akin to that of a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees type than just an “evil little girl.” This immediately lends the film a much campier, over-the-top vibe than what we left off with (which already was a little campy, but with some more “elegant” touches). While it’s a tonal shift, there’s a newfound cat-and-mouse element to the whole thing where everyone is catching up with each other on what they know and how late they might be from saving themselves from it.
That’s not to say that Orphan: First Kill treats its campiness as a means to believing its audience to be idiots, because despite this, there is major life to it yet. While the film was doing its job in a satisfactory manner in the first half, impressing me with the way they really did make Fuhrmann disappear into the role, even as a 25-year-old woman, once I realized the game Orphan: First Kill was playing, and the twists that it had around the corner that I expected to be absent from this film, I was hooked in a way that had me running around my room like it was the goddamned Super Bowl of horror.
I’m mostly enamored with how believable Fuhrmann’s presence is as Esther 13 years later. While, of course, it’s initially a bit noticeable that this is no longer the 11-year-old Esther from 2009, it’s still wildly impressive how consistent the practical results are in de-aging Fuhrmann, who is clearly having a blast returning to the role that started her career, and it’s that spirit that makes Fuhrmann have such a powerful magnetism as Esther. This was the role she was born to play, and she showed up ready to play it, no matter what age. It could’ve been so easy to unleash some underpaid, non-union digital artists onto Fuhrmann to digitally de-age her to all hell to achieve a Disney-fied Esther, but I have an immense amount of admiration and appreciation for William Brent Bell taking the time and making the effort to actually use filmmaking techniques to achieve his vision, as opposed to a visual effects house doing it for him and Fuhrmann.
What hasn’t changed between Orphan and Orphan: First Kill is just how funny both films are. While Orphan sometimes hides its humor behind dry character interactions and shocking “I can’t believe a child said that” moments of vulgarity, Orphan: First Kill leans heavily into humoring just how ridiculous this whole affair can seem on paper, but there is a balance to it. I never felt like it was expected to laugh *at* the film, but more so with it, as if Orphan: First Kill always knew that there was one more violent twist it could throw out there if we ever got too amused by the whole ordeal.
Bell, while inconsistent with the quality of his offerings, does always seem to imbue his films with a sense of atmosphere often overlooked when looking at his filmography, and Orphan: First Kill is no different. While some complaints about its hazy cinematography have been leveled (something not foreign to other films shot by Karim Hussain), I think, however exaggerated it may feel at times, it does fit the confusing, dreamlike atmosphere of it all. Perhaps this was just a tactic to soften the facial features of Fuhrmann to make her appearance more childlike, but I didn’t find it to be an issue; in fact, I rather liked the uneasy atmosphere it gave the film.
There were a million ways Orphan: First Kill could’ve gone wrong, and with so much time passing, the threat of bad de-aging, an admittedly tepidly-received filmmaker behind the project, the film not being produced by its original studio, and then receiving a streaming release, we had reason to believe that this was going to be a major misfire, and as a fan of Orphan, I am so glad to be entirely incorrect in that assumption. Yes, the film leans more heavily into the campier side of things, but the lean in helps justify its existence by taking big swings, and making big hits. There were bigger risks involved with said swings, but there’s also a clear reverence for the series from Bell, writer David Coggeshall, and more than anyone else, Fuhrmann. They take the time to make sure that familiar territory doesn’t stay familiar for long, and has killer cards up its sleeve to deliver another rip-roaring good time with one truly bad bitch. I was genuinely hooting and hollering the whole way. Esther forever.
In theaters, on digital, and streaming on Paramount + August 19th, 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.