Despite a mildly inspired twist the filmmakers have no idea what to do with, Orphan: First Kill is a frustratingly standard horror picture.
This review of the Paramount+ film Orphan: First Kill does not contain spoilers.
I have to say, horror has always been my least favorite genre, but watching Orphan in 2009 was one of the first that stuck in my memory for years. The script by David Leslie Johnson-McCormick (Aquaman) has such a wild, crazy, absurdly ridiculously entertaining reveal; you will forgive anything that happened before that mind-blowing sequence. What happened? Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) turns out to be a 35-year-old woman (Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome). Though, Orphan was a fairly standard horror film up to that point. It is nothing you haven’t seen before, going back to films like The Good Son. As a fan of the original, I worried the prequel would have little room to operate. And my fears were realized almost immediately.
Where did the film go wrong? For one, it’s not so much a prequel as half an origin story. Here, we find our Esther — whose real name is Leena Klamme before taking over that persona — in a mental institution in Estonia. Besides a brief explanation to a new art therapist, Anna (Gwendikyn Collins), on why she ended up there, we don’t see why or how she came to the breaking point of being a sociopath. (We actually don’t see her “first kill” at all). From there, she plans an escape in one day. I must say, these are the most inept guards in film history. The entire setup is effective but ludicrous. Especially when this was arranged on her feet. Trust me, when it’s based on leaving on someone’s first day on the job, it leaves more questions than answers.
After Leena escapes, she researches missing children in the United States. She comes across a missing child named Esther, that looks just like her. A police officer finds her on a swing at night. She claims her name is Esther. The authorities contact her family, the Allbrights. Her mother, Tricia (The Lake’s Julia Stiles), and brother, Gunner (Matthew Finlan), are skeptical of her. However, her husband, Allen (Rossif Sutherland), has finally woken out of his grief with the return of his baby girl.
Like we have said before, that is your basic setup, and I won’t discuss any more details for fear of giving away spoilers. I will say the script takes a left turn I did not see coming. Honestly, I see most twists, and this was interesting. The problem is director William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside), and writer David Coggeshall (The Haunting in Connecticut 2) have no idea how to execute it. Yes, they have fun for a while, this plot point pitting Esther versus Tricia. Yet, the explanation for keeping such a storyline going makes no sense compared to the risk.
If you look at Bell’s filmography, straight horror films with a low budget, he repeats the pattern here with a standard ending that is bloody and boring. And while the filmmakers do an adequate job of making Fuhrman look childlike, there are a few scenes that are just plain bad. For instance, one where she has clear forehead wrinkles and crow’s feet. These aren’t scenes when she is alone but when being paraded in front of Albright’s friends.
If Coggeshall pulled the ripcord on the reveal earlier and played up the battle of wits more, Orphan: First Kill would have been a much stronger film experience. If you are a genre fan, you may find this passing of the time somewhat enjoyable. However, this horror film improves nothing on the original and is well aware of its limitations.
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