2022 | rated R | starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Hiro Kanagawa | directed by William Brent Bell | 1 hr 39 mins |

I’ve been singing the praises of the 2009 thriller Orphan since it came out to mixed reviews and little public notice. It’s so criminally underrated I was able to show it to friends just last year and watch them cheer and delight in it’s wonderfully perverse twists. At a time when Torture Porn and trashy remakes reigned, Orphan was a rare studio horror film that didn’t condescend to it’s audience, it’s long, rich and lived-in at 2 full hours. Director Jaume Collet-Serra made a thriller that pulls in the best of atmospheric horror and trashy psycho pulp. It’s the best movie he ever made before falling off into a series of Liam Neeson action clones. Even I, despite the return of series start Isabelle Fuhrman, am hard pressed to find a reason to get excited about a sequel to Orphan, thinking the film’s grand reveal would render an attempt to sequelize it – well, impossible. Never underestimate the power of movie magic to elevate laziness. Instead we got a sequel, Orphan: First Kill which is set-up clearly after her first kill.

Warning: Contains Spoilers for ‘Orphan’.

The most dangerous patient in an Estonian mental institute, Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman), orchestrates a murderous escape and takes the identity of a missing American girl named Esther. Posing as a victim of an international kidnapping, Esther does her best to integrate into the home of the Albrights, mom Tricia (Julia Stiles), dad Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and snarky teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finland), however the detective on the original kidnapping case (Hiro Kanagawa) starts to realize that something is wrong with Esther.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Isabella Furhman gives a terrific performance in the first film at the age of 10. Now, Fuhrman is 25 years old and 5 foot 3′. As we lean in the first film, Esther doesn’t visibly age so even a sequel to Orphan would have seemed impossible, much less a prequel. All sorts of unconvincing tricks and effects are deployed to make it seem like the actress is an 8 year old girl, with Fuhrman placed behind doll houses and pianos like a pregnant sitcom wife. Replacing her with a child double and only shooting from the back in any full-body shot. It doesn’t look terrible, but it does constantly seem to jump up and break the illusion almost constantly.

It’s an appropriately sleazy story for our villain to pose as the returned victim of a kidnapped child, manipulating a grieving family for her own ends. This Changeling element is interesting director William Brent Bell is no Collet-Serra, doesn’t immerse us in the home life, build the characters or milk the film for suspense. Bell, a studio hack with a filmography that includes passionless horror like Stay Alive, The Devil Inside and two The Boy movies, has no eye for what made Orphan special. But Bell isn’t the problem here, it’s the script from David Coggeshall that doesn’t know what to do with this character. Coggeshall does have his own corker of a twist here, one that is even sleazier than Esther posing as a kidnapped child. One that I, frankly, kind of loved. It’s the reason I’m scoring First Kill as high as I am.

Awkward effects aside, it’s still fun seeing Fuhrman back in this role again. It’s also great to see Julia Stiles back in what first appears to be a grieving mom and ends up being a whole lot juicer of a role. First Kill threatens to  challenge Esther as a character in a way that would make more sense as a sequel, where she would know her tricks aren’t working anymore and has to adapt. First Kill works best when leaning into it’s own B-movie absurdity – a scene where Esther drives down the road, lighting a cigarette, to “Maniac” on the radio is peak giddy camp. It also delights in  The movie opens up a fertile ground for Esther to play anti-hero, to go up against another psychopath, but then denies the opportunity by not seizing on it.

Instead of challenging Esther, the movie proves why it’s a prequel and not a sequel, because in the end it has no new ideas for the series. That despite the twists and turns, the real goal of First Kill is simply to hit the plot points of the first film. Esther likes to paint. Esther leans how to use black lights. Esther likes her dad in a more than fatherly way. Esther walks in on her parents having sex. Where the first film had a skillfully orchestrated, multi-layered climactic battle, First Kill has a cliche fumble around on the roof of the family mansion. The way this movie falls back on the least creative and most convenient story points is a movie beating with the stale heart of a direct-to-video sequel cash-in.