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Orphan First Kill ★★★



Director: William Brent Bell

Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland

Release: August 19, 2022 (UK)

“Ah, demonic children again” was arguably the most popular sentiment in 2009, prior to the release of Jaume Collet-Serra’s stellar genre piece, Orphan. Nothing could prepare the crowds for what’s to come, as the reveal of Esther’s true origin (that being her, ahem, not-so-innocent adult age) was a neat shocker for the largely thriller-starved era of the late 2000s. A modest horror feature, the film was a critical and financial success – it just shows how deliciously unhinged plot twists could improve a film’s word of mouth. In that regard, Orphan: First Kill, the confoundingly belated sequel, should have absolutely nothing to worry about: with twists aplenty and frenzied violence to rival the first film, Esther’s return to the silver screen is an unexpectedly campy delight.

While one may assume that First Kill is an origin story of sorts, William Brent Bell’s film is more akin to another chapter in the story of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Set prior to the events of its predecessor, the sequel presents Esther as an almost Michael Myers-like killer figure: locked deep within a grimy psychiatric facility in Estonia, she’s already got the reputation of the most dangerous patient on-site. Following a successful escape to America under the guise of a missing child, Esther infiltrates a wealthy suburban family and sees her plans ruined by the matriarch (Julia Stiles), whose instincts suspect something wrong with the innocent “child”.

Setting up a prequel to Orphan is no easy feat: when a film’s lead character is so reliant on the final narrative turn, the task of expanding Esther’s mythology seems to hang in the balance of making a believable backstory for her – especially now that Isabelle Fuhrman is getting closer to her character’s real age. Thankfully, much like the Saw sequels embraced John Kramer’s deeply intricate background with full sincerity, Bell’s film goes all-in with its delightfully contrived mystery. To mask Fuhrman’s height, the sequel smartly utilizes body doubles and CG-enhanced imagery to create a consciously unnatural – if somewhat bizarre – effect. By leaning into the silliness of the first film’s twist, First Kill welcomes the addition of slasher-lite antics and histrionic outbursts – aspects that work in favour of the film’s over-the-top narrative choices.

Just like its predecessor, First Kill is single-handedly carried by its central performance. Following her stunning outing in the criminally underseen The Novice last year, Isabelle Fuhrman continues to shine as Esther, a villainous force to be reckoned with. Despite the 13-year gap between the Orphan films, the devilish spark in her eyes remains just as haunting as it was in the original film, albeit now the actress’s age does allow Esther to be a bit more devious than she used to be. It’s all just as uncomfortable as it was in Collet-Serra’s work, but with an added dose of self-aware camp that gives the sequel some remarkably unique flair.

Following in the footsteps of Evil Dead and Child’s Play sequels, Orphan: First Kill opts to redefine its identity as a darkly comedic, gleefully violent follow-up that sets its sights on the inherent ludicrousness of the franchise. Unlike the first film, the need to present Esther as a child is no longer required – and with it comes the freedom to wreak havoc upon the overprivileged family at the centre of this narrative. While nowhere near as formally accomplished as Collet-Serra’s work, First Kill excels at being exactly what it wishes to be: a campy prequel that delivers a battle of wits (and knives) between a 33-year-old woman dressed as a child and her adoptive mother.

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