Orphan: First Kill Review: There's Something Wrong With Esther Again In This Twisty, Bloody Prequel

Jaume Collet-Serra's "Orphan" is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, and damn it, I am not ashamed to admit it! Collet-Serra took what was an admittedly silly premise and worked it into a stylish, amusing, creepy little slice of fun. The filmmaker, responsible for titles like "The Shallows," "Non-Stop," and the upcoming "Black Adam," is adept at a style I like to call art-trash — he blends artistic flourishes with pulpy, trashy premises to great effect. In Collet-Serra's hands, "Orphan" worked, and worked exceedingly well. The film focused on a little girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) adopted by a nice Connecticut couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard). On the outside, Esther seemed sweet and almost unbelievably polite. But she was actually a murderous psychopath! 

Killer kids are a dime a dozen in the horror genre, but "Orphan" threw in a whopper of a twist: Esther wasn't a child at all. Instead, she was an adult woman named Leena Klammer. Leena has hypopituitarism, a hormonal disorder that causes proportional dwarfism, and she's prone to posing as a child, being adopted by a family, and then ruining (and taking) their lives (usually while seducing the father, just to make things extra icky). 

"Orphan" ended with Esther/Leena meeting her demise, which made a sequel unlikely. But how about a prequel? And what if original Esther Isabelle Fuhrman reprised her now-iconic (yeah I said it!) role? That may seem odd to anyone familiar with "Orphan," since Fuhrman was around 12 when she shot the first film and is now 25. Can she still convincingly play a child? The answer: sort of! There's an extra layer of meta irony in "Orphan: First Kill" — Furhman was a child playing an adult pretending to be a child in the first movie, and now she's an adult playing an adult posing as a child. Rather than digitally de-age Furhman, director William Brent Bell instead uses camera trickery to make her look like a pint-sized killer. For wide shots that don't show Esther's face, a child stand-in is used. But all other shots feature Furhman, usually crouching down or on her knees when she's standing around adult characters (or the adults are elevated in some way on off-screen). Is it always convincing? Not entirely. But that doesn't mean "Orphan: First Kill" doesn't have plenty of whacked-out fun to enjoy. 

There's something wrong with Esther ... again

In "First Kill," we first meet Leena when she's locked away in an Estonian mental hospital, confusing (and scaring) a new employee who mistakes her for an actual child. After a blood-soaked escape, Leena decides it's time to get the hell out of the country. Her plan: look up missing kids and pose as one of them. This idea isn't entirely novel to Esther or "Orphan: First Kill" — it was, in fact, the subject of the fascinating documentary "The Imposter," in which adult con artist Frédéric Bourdin posed as a missing American child and was brought to live with that child's family until they learned the truth. 

Leena takes on the identity of Esther, a little girl who has been missing for four years. After some wrangling, Leena, as Esther, comes home to live with the real Esther's family — mother Tricia (Julia Stiles), father Allan (Rossif Sutherland), and teen son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). The family is understandably excited to see their long-lost child, but others are quick to note that something seems off. For one thing, Esther has an accent now — although that could be chalked up to her time overseas. She also doesn't seem to remember things she should, but perhaps that's explained away by trauma. And shouldn't the real Esther's family realize that this isn't the Esther they knew? Well ... maybe. Maybe not. 

Having seen "Orphan" many, many times, I thought I knew what to expect from "First Kill." I assumed that this would be more or less a remake (or rehash, if you want to be mean) of the first film, with Esther terrorizing yet another hapless family. But David Coggeshall's script has more than a few tricks up its sleeve, including some jaw-dropping twists that I will confess I did not see coming. It makes sense — the first film had a jaw-dropping twist too, after all. The twist feels fresh and exciting here, and changes the entire film in a way that's wickedly enjoyable.

Twists, turns, and a murky visual style

Fuhrman gets to have the most fun here. Now played by an actual adult, Esther can take her wicked ways even further, including a laugh-out-loud hilarious moment where she steals a car, slips on some sunglasses, and fires up a cigarette as she speeds away. The role of Esther still fits her like a glove, and while some of the shots of her clearly kneeling down to appear as a child look a bit clumsy, we mostly buy that this is the same kid-sized Esther we remember from the first movie. At times, having the adult Fuhrman pose as a child makes "First Kill" feel like a horror movie parody of "Dear Evan Hanson," but Ben Platt has nothing on Isabelle Furhman, let me tell you. In addition to Fuhrman, Styles performs quite well, especially since her role ends up being a bit more complicated than we first thought. 

For all of the gory, gruesome fun built into "Orphan: First Kill," the film suffers from the lack of Collet-Serra. While this is the best thing Bell has directed, he's nowhere near the amazing stylist that Collet-Serra is, and this is a film that is very much in need of that touch. Worse, Bell and cinematographer Karim Hussain decide to bathe the entire movie in a sickly, murky, ugly haze; it often looks like everyone off camera was smoking gigantic novelty cigars right before Bell yelled "Action!" Is this a stylistic choice, or something Bell and company did to better disguise Furhman's real age, the way they used to smear Vaseline over the camera lens to help aging movie stars? Whatever the reason, it's distracting every step of the way, making one think they've suddenly developed cataracts. 

This ugly visual style frustrated me, but I also guess I'm too much of an "Orphan" simp to let it ruin my fun. If you, like me, are itching for further bloody adventures of Esther the Orphan, then you're in for a sweet, bloody treat. Despite its foggy look, "Orphan: First Kill" is a surprising, amusing, and welcomed return for everyone's favorite mini-murderer. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10