The original film’s director is busy with Black Adam at the moment, so the prequel comes to cinemas and streaming from William Brent Bell. Bell isn’t the most respected horror filmmaker in Hollywood, with hilarious video game horror film Stay Alive, the tragic Boy franchise, and The Devil Inside under his belt. At the risk of damning with faint praise, Orphan: First Kill may be his best film yet.
Those who haven’t seen the first Orphan film should go and watch it first because First Kill spoils it in the first few minutes. It’s also generally a better film that serves as a solid litmus test for the prequel. The aspects of First KIll‘s story that are interesting wouldn’t be particularly notable to someone who hadn’t seen the original and anyone who didn’t enjoy the 2009 thriller won’t have their mind changed. The first film is something of a mystery. A lot of its selling point is tied up in what exactly is going on with the titular orphan, a little Russian girl named Esther. Once the film answers the central question, it’s mostly over, but the prequel seeks to build upon the original with a new idea.
Despite the title, the plot of First Kill does not depict little Esther’s first murder. Instead, it tells the story that leads immediately to the beginning of the 2009 original. Isabelle Fuhrman reprises her role as Esther Albright, real name Leena Klammer, an adult woman with a rare condition that keeps her looking young forever. The film finds Leena in a mental institution after she murdered the last family she tricked into adopting her. This has become something of a pattern for Leena, who quickly escapes the institution to do it all over again. She embeds herself as the missing daughter of a wealthy American family and sets to work trying desperately to blend in. One disaster after another gradually reveals that the family she chose is hiding some dark secrets as well, leading to a tense struggle that threatens the lives of everyone involved.
There are a lot of important things that Orphan: First Kill cannot manage to do right. It’s not scary, largely because it continues to rely on overdone evil kid tropes and largely meaningless spooky imagery. Glow in the dark paint and multiple-layered Chekhov’s guns fail to inspire fear. There are one or two excellent pieces of set design that don’t get enough attention, some viewers might just miss them entirely. The dark comedy that earned the first film praise is extremely hit-and-miss here, never inspiring more than a chuckle.
Many of the characters don’t behave in ways even vaguely resembling normal human beings and the overwhelming majority of central figures are unlikeable to the point of disgust. Much of the family drama has the feel of a soap opera trying way too hard to stay alive. Despite these fairly obvious failings, the film does improve upon the 2009 original in a couple of key ways.
For one thing, the first film had no justification for being over two hours long. First Kill is a tight 90-minutes with extremely well-defined acts, and that improvement in pacing is extremely helpful. While the first film carried itself with a unique, if slightly misused, sense of gothic horror, First Kill has happily embraced the camp aspects of its presentation. This occasionally results in a more fun experience, possibly better aligning it with its audience. Honestly, the crowd best suited to enjoy Orphan: First Kill would be barred from seeing it without their parents at the theater.
Luckily, releasing the film on Paramount Plus allows it to reach the perfect viewing audience; middle and high school students at sleepover parties. This is going to be someone’s first horror movie, and they will grow up with fond memories. They could do considerably worse.
Hardcore fans of Orphan will find a lot to love in First Kill. It’s been thirteen years since the original film’s release, and there is unquestionably a thriving community of people who would count the original among their favorite horror films. The prequel carries much of the iconography of the original while recontextualizing the narrative in an interesting new light. Not every horror film can be turned into a yearly sequel mill. Those who know how Orphan ends likely understand the difficulties of making a sequel.
This is likely the best possible outcome of trying to make Orphan more than it once was. Orphan: First Kill will likely find its audience of dedicated fans, but, for the average filmgoer whose just looking for a solid horror experience, there are plenty of better options. Fans likely won’t be seeing this one on any best or worst lists, but it’ll fill the space for 90 minutes.