Evil children in horror movies isn’t new, but evil adults posing as children is. Well, it was back in 2009 when Orphan hit theatres. The story had an original twist and was well received by audiences, but it’s taken 13 years for a follow-up to materialise, but it’s finally here and it’s well worth the wait.
Orphan: First Kill sees the return of Esther (real name Leena Klammer), a woman in her 30s who is able to pass herself off as a 10-year-old girl due to suffering from hypopituitarism, a hormonal disorder that stunts physical growth and causes proportional dwarfism. The prequel is set two years before the events of the first film and shows how she established herself as the ultimate problem ‘child’.
Leena (Isabella Fuhrman) is incarcerated in the Sarne Institute, a psychiatric facility in Estonia, after murdering a family who took her in when she pretended to be a runaway. A new therapist at the institute, Anna, is given the complete history of Leena’s past on her first day, but only after she is accidentally trapped in a room with her. The highly manipulative and violent Leena manages to orchestrate her escape from the institute by seducing one guard and coercing a fellow patient into violently attacking another.
Leena manages to stowaway in Anna’s car and is driven to away from the institute and to freedom. Once outside, Leena assumes the identity of a missing little girl who matches her profile. Murderous and savage Leena becomes sweet and innocent Esther Albright, a young girl who went missing from her home in Connecticut four years previous.
She is reunited with her grieving and wealthy family, but she still has to convince them that she is in fact Esther. She manages to get through family dinners and therapy sessions but her biggest challenge comes in convincing her mother, Tricia (Julia Stiles), who knows that something isn’t quite right with her daughter. A bond does finally develop between the pair, but it’s one neither of them seem happy about.
It would be easy for this prequel to go through the motions and simply repeat the formula laid out in the first movie. But, much like Esther, Orphan: First Kill plays by its own rules. The movie does tread familiar ground for the first 45 minutes, however, this is used to subvert expectations and lull you into thinking ‘I know where this is going’. Then, just when you’re settled, the story swerves completely off the prequel/sequel track and goes brilliantly down a road less travelled. You could simply call it a twist, but it’s executed so well it’s more like a double pirouette.
As a prequel, Orphan: First Kill has limited options – the twist of Esther being an adult has already been revealed, the movie is set shortly before the events of the first movie and the fate of the Albright family has already been somewhat disclosed. However, the movie flourishes despite its restrictions and breathes new life into prequel/sequels, demonstrating that great storytelling can be achieved when risks are taken.
Julia Stiles and Isabella Fuhrman are perfect as the ‘mother and daughter’ duo. The untraditional cat and mouse game the pair play is a lot more layered and vicious compared to the mother/daughter relationship in the first movie. Fuhrman plays the duelling roles of traumatised child and dangerous murderer effortlessly. There is even a Hannibal Lecter quality about Fuhrman’s portrayal of Esther - she is very violent and dangerous but also somewhat of a savant. When she is free of the institute she chooses her new identity whilst enjoying red wine and playing classical music on the piano. When she kills, she is practically silent, seemingly savouring the experience as she takes someone’s life. One particular kill evokes shades of Lecter’s rhythmic beating of Officer Boyle in Silence of the Lambs.
Orphan: First Kill is brave, bold, smart, savage and highly enjoyable. The only negative is that it’s getting just a limited release in theatres, although you can buy it on demand and watch it on Paramount+ on Friday, August 19th.
Movie Score: 4/5