The plot twist at the core of the 2009 horror film Orphan is one of the most famous in all of contemporary horror. The shock reveal that Isabelle Fuhrman’s Esther is not an innocent nine-year-old, but rather a thirty-something with a degenerative condition, rocked audiences to its core. More than a decade later and Esther returns in Orphan: First Kill, a prequel that peers into Esther’s past to see how she first embarked on her conquest of manipulation and murder. And even better, it’s the rare case of a prequel complementing its source material and expanding the story in a meaningful way.
The film stars in Estonia, with a new therapist touring a highly secure mental facility, with one notorious patient: Esther, or Leena as she was once known. Cue a bloody escape plan, flight to America, and a look at how Leena became Esther for the first time, setting into motion events that lead right into the 2009 original.
What makes Orphan: First Kill different from most horror prequels is how it takes the third-act shock of the original Orphan and runs with it. This time around, we already know Esther’s dark secret, and director William Brent Bell wisely opts not to regurgitate the formula of the first film. We don’t have to sit and wonder about who Esther is, and what her goals are, but rather we get to see her in all her gleeful brutality from the very start.
It’s in no small part bolstered by Fuhrman’s solid return to the role that put her on the map. While 25-year-old Fuhrman may no longer look as young as Esther is meant to be masquerading as, her ability to switch between conniving megalomaniac and playing innocent on a whim is very impressive. Equally, the cinematography works excellently, toying with perspective á la Lord of the Rings to make Fuhrman seem much shorter than she actually is. You may see age in her face compared to 2009, but you’ll still (mostly) believe that Esther really is a child. Well, an adult pretending to be a child.
Yet easily the film’s strongest point is where screenwriter David Coggeshall takes the story around the midway point. It’s something we won’t spoil here, but the film spins the complex relationship between Esther and her adopted mother Tricia (a brilliant Julia Stiles) to add a whole lot more nuance to it. It’ll no doubt strike you towards the climax of Orphan: First Kill that at some point, inexplicably, you began rooting for Esther as she plots against her newfound family life. That’s testament to how well Stiles and Matthew Finlan, who plays their son Gunnar, commit to their roles – and the narrative gumption to flip the script just as powerfully as the first Orphan did.
It’s also helpful that Orphan: First Kill zips through its 90-minute runtime at breakneck pace. At no point does it feel bloated or too slow for its own good, yet you still get to learn plenty about Esther and the uncomfortable new surroundings she’s in. Some of the visual effects are choppy, and the odd scene looks slightly out of focus, but it’s never enough to tear you out of the experience.
It all builds to make Orphan: First Kill a very impressive prequel, and one of the horror hits of the year. It’s enjoyable enough that even those unfamiliar with the original will get plenty out of it, and will no doubt please fans who have been waiting almost fifteen years to see Esther return. Prequels rarely find a way to say something new about the universe they’re based in, but Orphan: First Kill does just that.
Signature Entertainment presents Orphan: First Kill exclusively in Cinemas from 19th August