It would be an exaggeration to call the new Orphan prequel’s amorality refreshing, but not that big of an exaggeration. The William Brent Bell-directed Orphan: First Kill is a horror movie mostly devoid of modern pretensions. It contains no serious attempt to graft pseudo-sociology onto the movie’s body count as an instant mea culpa. For our blood lust, we are not taxed with teachable moments or beaten over the head with a theme that has long been native to the genre, like trauma. Lean and mean, Orphan: First Kill is, if not fully aware of its trashiness, then at least unafraid of it.
The twist that made the preceding film, 2009's Orphan, so delicious is revealed early on in First Kill. And this movie, in turn, manages a twist to outdo that one, which I will discuss in this review. This is your spoiler alert.
Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is the central figure of the Orphan franchise. She’s this series’ Freddy/Jason, but her point of view is prioritized, particularly in First Kill, which makes her the de facto protagonist. It seems strange to call someone who kills with her bare hands and slips a dead rat into her adoptive mother’s smoothie an “antihero,” but here we are. Leena is, effectively, a Chucky doll with a pulse. She looks like a child as a result of a “gland disorder” that causes “proportional dwarfism,” explains a worker at the psychiatric hospital in Estonia where she is being held at the start of the film. “Leena uses her affliction as much as she suffers from it,” he continues. “She’s an exceptional con artist.” She is extremely good at insinuating herself into people’s lives, as we learned in the last movie. (The twist there was that she was an adult the whole time her adoptive family, not to mention the audience, was led to believe she was a kid.)
Played with mercurial nuance by Fuhrman (who is actually 25), Leena literally spits and claws her way through the movie after escaping the facility à la Michael Myers. She shares his boogeymanish ability to become undetectable to the human eye, only to pop up out of nowhere, as she does before maiming the art therapist whose car she stowed away in for her freedom. As if apparent teleportation isn’t silly enough, she searches the internet for missing children and, wouldn’t you know it, discovers she’s a ringer for a missing child out of Darien, Connecticut, named Esther. To escape her country/situation, Leena resolves to become Esther, and all it takes is a few ribbons to cover up her decidedly mature hesitation marks.
Tricia (Julia Stiles) swings by Russia to pick up what we think she thinks is her lost child of some four years and bring her home to her tony estate, which somehow contains both Fabergé eggs and an uninvited rat (though it is rather clean and cute vermin—guess they just make them differently in Connecticut). Leena-turned-Esther is up to her old tricks, or I guess, since this is a prequel, these are new tricks that she will soon repeat, like watching her parents fuck, pining for her father figure Allen (who is, to be fair, the extremely zaddy Rossif Sutherland), and cursing at her brother. She plays ominous tones on the piano that perfectly score her animosity, and she learns about Esther through her journal.
But Leena has miscalculated, assuming that Esther did in fact go missing. Leena, it turns out, picked the right mother to put her in the wrong motherfucking place. Esther isn’t missing, but dead as a result of “some sibling bullshit that went too far,” according to Tricia, who helped her son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) cover up his sister’s death and then reported her as missing. (This plot point was undoubtedly influenced by one of the JonBenét Ramsey conspiracy theories that have floated around for the past 26 years.)
Tricia, then, knew of Leena’s scam all along, but played along out of familial obligation. I guffawed at this reveal. It reminded me of the joy I felt during the first movie’s absolutely absurd twist reveal, and then some. It is like a dopamine infusion when a movie so cleverly deceives you and, after admitting as much, turns on a dime to resolve its predicament.
And what a predicament it is. It’s clear that Tricia needs Leena to be Esther way more than Leena needs to be Esther. Esther’s apparent return helps heal a long-broken family. “It seems like since we got Esther back we got us back too,” Tricia comments about her relationship with Allen. Happy husband, happy life. “You chose this role, and now you’re going to fucking play it,” Tricia tells Leena. Leena, who does not want to go back to the hospital that held her captive, indeed plays along.
That gives way to a somewhat anemic dual-scamming plot that soon unravels because Tricia, as severe and exacting as she may be (and Stiles is so good at striking a devoted mother/lying schemer duality), is no match for Leena’s psychopathy. The mega-grift can only last so long before disrepair once again visits the home of Tricia and Allen. But before that, Stiles spits out some incredible lines, like, “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go upstairs and fuck my husband,” and, as a way of scolding Leena for confusing the facts of Esther’s life and misidentifying her therapist’s bird: “All macaws are parrots but not all fucking parrots are macaws.” This is dialogue that is just begging to be quoted moving forward by admirers.
Orphan: First Kill debuted simultaneously in theaters and on streaming (via Paramount Plus), and the latter feels like its native home. It is via streaming that the Orphan: First Kill cult will flourish. Though its crudeness places it squarely in b-movie territory, First Kill is not without its aesthetic flair—there’s a particularly innovative shot through the dollhouse in Esther’s room capturing Leena’s arrival, and somewhat poetic imagery of Leena getting bloody fingerprints on the piano she plays after beating her therapist with a tire iron. It’s referential, but never more so than during its climax, which could only be more explicitly a homage to fellow domestic thriller The Good Son if Macaulay Culkin himself showed up to aid with the plot’s resolution.
The faintest impressions of political commentary drift onscreen, via Gunnar threatening Leena with deportation, calling her an “illegal immigrant,” and noting, “This is America—people like me matter,” and Gunnar and Tricia both referring to Leena as a “freak” (“deformed freak” and “mutant grifter” in her would-be mother’s words). This xenophobia and ableism does more to underline First Kill’s status as exploitation-cinema nostalgia than it does instruct. Like the Peltzers of Gremlins, this family was fucked way before they ever brought their new pet home. When Tricia tells Leena, “You’re a monster,” I’m not sure that the movie disagrees, but you can best believe that Leena triumphs nonetheless. In this genre, it pays to be a monster.