Director: William Brent Bell
Stars: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Matthew Finlan
There’s been 13 years between Orphan and this unanticipated, deeply improbable prequel. That’s older than it’s menacing main character Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is supposed to be. Taking place two years before Leena met and terrorised Vera Farmiga’s recovering alcoholic and her family, the inaccurately-titled Orphan: First Kill winds the clock back to tell the tale of how a 30-year-old woman afflicted with glandular, proportional dwarfism hot-footed it from an Estonian psychiatric ward to the good-ol’-US’of-A (blatantly Canada). And here’s the kicker; Fuhrman (12 when the first movie was made; 25 now) reprises her role. That’s right. She’s 25 playing 30 playing 10. It’s enough to give dear Evan Hansen a headache.
Knowing this – and it’s hard to escape – colours how the film plays. Journeyman horror director William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, The Boy) is strong-armed by this faithful casting into using a lot of sleight-of-hand to mask the fact that his leading lady is in reality a full grown woman. Fuhrman was so striking in Jaume Collet-Serra’s film that it’s a boon to this one to have her back, but it’s also inherently distracting. Try as you might, one can’t help but scrutinise her every scene. When is it an awkwardly mismatched child double? When is it in-camera forced perspective? And when – with more than a little unintentional comedy – is it simply Fuhrman trying to make herself look as small as possible? It may not have been the objective from the outset, but this amounts to half the fun in this uncanny valley B-picture.
Boasting wildly-on-the-nose needle drops like Interpol’s “Evil” and Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” from Flashdance, Orphan: First Kill mercifully seems wise to the stretch involved in it’s mental gymnastics. It isn’t immediately apparent, but this is a movie with some level of wry self-awareness; something which proves to be a lifeline after the drab, straight-faced opening. It is here that prequelitis initially sets in, as we catalogue the events that led Leena to adopt the Esther persona and make her migration to the United States. There’s some flare as Leena/Esther makes her escape – particularly a long tracking shot down a psych ward corridor – but the first act is more inclined toward functional box ticking and the expected Easter Eggs. Adequate but uninspired, and as chilly as all those drone shots of snowy Estonian hills. DP Karim Hussain really leans into the gloom, which flattens the effectiveness of the first half hour.
Once we’re in ‘Connecticut’, First Kill has a new family dynamic to establish. Julia Stiles is inscrutable as suspicious mother-figure Tricia, and Matthew Finlan is appropriately obnoxious as her privileged son Gunnar… but neither of them tesselate convincingly with Rossif Sutherland’s more affable and artistic father figure Allen. Perhaps Esther’s presence has us looking for the cracks in the family unit, but the cracks are showing, and it feels like a blunder of mismatched casting despite everyone putting in decent work.
The tropes of the first movie are dutifully wheeled out, right down to a queasily voyeuristic sex scene. And it quickly comes to feel as though First Kill might be all out of ideas. Painted into a corner (pun intended), screenwriter David Coggeshall takes the only inspired surprise available to him. Fortunately, it works. Somewhere around an hour in the dynamic changes, and the film finds a new and gratifying sense of flex and humour.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan embraced it’s own looniness and that helped make it the riot it remains. Though it takes a while to get there, First Kill gamely tries to match this Machiavellian spirit. It’s a diluted facsimile, but it still buoys the movie upward just when it’s weirdo shooting style (by necessity there are some truly ‘off’ edits here) is starting to lose it’s novelty. Stiles in particular comes alive when needed. Fuhrman, meanwhile, seems to be having a ball. Wonderful as she was earlier this year in the intense college sports drama The Novice, it looks as though revisiting Leena/Esther after so many years has provided a spicy opportunity to let her hair down. Playing in the sandbox of a horror character who is low-key iconic, this second shot may boost that notoriety.
The heady midsection doesn’t quite hold to the finish line. Prequelitis strikes again with a flatly predictable finale, hemmed in by the necessities of telegraphing the story toward the events of the first Orphan. But, in spite of this, First Kill still survives. It’s just such a aberration, even in the wilds of the genre. A weird, un-PC little movie that owes as much to Tom Hooper’s Cats as it does the long legacy of spurious horror franchising.
Likely to end up filed beside Annabelle in the list of movies I know I “shouldn’t” love… but actually kinda do…