Orphan’s lesson to women was that you should never adopt a foreign-born child over the age of 7 because they might secretly be an adult in an adolescent's body who wants to slaughter your biological offspring and seduce your husband. Jaume Collet-Serra’s modern riff on The Bad Seed was a fright-free affair defined mainly by its absurdity and, also, by Isabelle Fuhrman’s lead performance as Esther, a Russian girl who was actually a 33-year-old woman from Estonia with a rare hormone disorder that caused “proportional dwarfism.” Esther was adopted by a couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) with a deaf daughter and an angry son who were also grieving the recent death of an unborn girl. Given her creepy expressions and equally off-putting outfits—think turn-of-the-century dolls’ clothes with ribbons covering her neck and wrist scars—Esther unsurprisingly made their lives a living hell, surreptitiously murdering and maiming anyone who rubbed her the wrong way.
Though Esther perished at the end of that 2009 film, her backstory is now mined for derivative terror in Orphan: First Kill, a prequel (Aug. 19 in theaters, On Demand and Paramount+) so fundamentally misbegotten as to be unintentionally (and inevitably) hilarious. Whereas the original Orphan hinged on the twist that its youthful star was playing a secret grown-up, William Brent Bell’s lousy follow-up—which is set two years before its predecessor—reverses this illusion, featuring the now-25-year-old Fuhrman as young-looking Esther. Think of it as the horror version of Clifford, orchestrated via lots of close-ups that position Fuhrman’s face at the bottom of the frame (to better suggest her shortness), and routine use of body doubles (who are seen only from the rear) for any master shots. The effort exerted to pull off this ruse is both considerable and transparent, turning the entire affair into a weird stunt—a situation exacerbated by the fact that, no matter the makeup used to de-age Fuhrman, she no longer has the visage of a 10-year-old.
So ludicrous are Orphan: First Kill’s attempts at positing its leading lady as a child that one wishes the filmmakers had gone the What We Do in the Shadows route and simply CGI’d her head onto a little body. Alas, as it stands, Bell’s saga feigns seriousness while indulging in ridiculousness. David Coggeshall’s script is a dramatization of the tale recounted in the first movie, beginning with Esther—who at this early stage is still going by her birth name Lena—living in Estonia’s Saarne Institute. She’s the psychiatric facility’s most dangerous resident, and it doesn’t take long for her to murderously escape to Russia, where she scours the internet for missing persons reports and chooses Esther Albright, an American, because they resemble each other. When Esther’s wealthy Darien, Connecticut parents Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland) hear that their girl has been discovered after all these years, they’re astonished, as is their teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), and a reunion is swiftly arranged.
Esther is an unhinged psychopath and an imposter, and thus she immediately raises suspicions both with her therapist and with Tricia. Allen, however, is overjoyed to have his daughter back, and moreover, to learn that she’s become an accomplished painter, since that happens to be his profession. Before long, they’re bonding by working side-by-side in his studio, where Allen teaches Esther how to encode secret images into her tableaus via paint that’s only visible in blacklight (a tricky technique she employs in Orphan). When not with daddy, whom Esther—per tradition—passionately lusts after, she bickers with jerky Gunnar and does her best to convince Tricia that she’s the real deal, mainly by calling her “mommy.” That she has a Russian accent, all sorts of newfound skills, and scant knowledge of her prior life doesn’t seem to really bother anyone.
Except, that is, for detective Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa), who was initially tasked with finding Esther. His snooping is the catalyst for the plot’s big bombshell (not to be revealed here), although that ho-hum revelation is far less preposterous than the idea that no one verified Esther’s identity by checking her fingerprints or DNA. Instead, everyone just naively buys what Esther is selling—a bit of idiocy that feels directly related to the film itself, which repeatedly asks us to ignore what we see (and know) about Fuhrman, and to instead pretend that the actress continues to look like a little kid when her face is that of a twentysomething woman who’d have no problem ordering a drink at a bar. Bell’s constant crosscutting between tight profiles of Fuhrman and wide shots of a child’s back render the proceedings stilted and silly, especially when she’s forced to tussle with a genuine adult in skirmishes that have more than a whiff of Child’s Play-style cartoonishness to them.
Orphan revealed that Esther’s previous adopted clan had died in a tragic house fire, making Orphan: First Kill one long, slow march toward that calamity. There’s no chance that Esther will perish, or that anyone else will survive, thereby negating all traces of suspense. Worse than that predictability, however, is this thriller’s overarching lack of inspiration, epitomized by Tricia deducing Esther’s origins by flipping through her Estonian bible and finding a Saarne Institute library stamp—the very same means by which Farmiga’s mom figured out that her daughter wasn’t who she claimed to be. Maternal anxieties and protectiveness have rarely been plumbed this dismally; Stiles, who already fought off demonic progeny in 2006’s crummy The Omen remake, should perhaps find a new horror niche to explore.
Orphan wasn’t a success but at least director Collet-Serra crafted it with chilly polish. Orphan: First Kill, on the other hand, is a drab thing to look at, with Bell too busy masking his headliner’s stature to concoct a single interesting composition, and Karim Hussain’s cinematography boasting the sheen of a DV-grade home movie. For a film about a murderer who can’t grow up either physically or emotionally (what with her perpetual kill-mom, screw-dad fixations), it’s fitting that this prequel is no more narratively mature than its predecessor. That the series’ aesthetics have regressed as its star has aged, meanwhile, only adds to Orphan: First Kill’s juvenile dreariness.