October 2, 2022
'Orphan: First Kill' Review: Esther the Pretend Child Psycho Returns

Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), the demon child of the 2009 horror thriller “Orphan,” was a 9-year-old psycho freak who dressed like a frumpy Victorian doll and spoke in a Russian accent, which upped the ante on her malevolence by making her seem not just a junior devil but a junior devil from the land of Putin. Movies about monster children go way back (the original one, “The Bad Seed,” was released in 1956), and after “The Omen” and “The Brood” and “Ringu” and so many others, there wasn’t a lot of room left for a pulp horror film like “Orphan” to surprise us. But the movie, in its schlocky blunderbuss way, did have an original twist: Esther was not, in fact, 9 years old — she was a woman in her early 30s named Leena who had a rare hormonal disorder that stunted her physical development. The folly of “Orphan” is that it wasn’t much different from the film it would have been had Esther simply been 9 years old. If you’re going to make the adult-woman-in-a-child’s-body horror concept stick, it needs to be executed with psychology, imagination, and flair, three things that “Orphan” did not have.

Most critics, like myself, thought it was a dud of a movie, but I guess it’s become a cult film. Thus, 13 years later, here comes “Orphan: First Kill,” a prequel to “Orphan,” in which Fuhrman, who was only 11 when the first movie was shot, now really is a grown-up actor pretending to be a child.

She’s got the same look: the pigtails tied by ribbon, the choker and ruffled 19th-century shirt, and the dour Slavic demeanor, as though she were playing Irina in some cracked version of “Three Sisters.” “First Kill” opens with her busting out of the Saarne psychiatric facility in Estonia, where she discovers and adopts, via the Internet, the image and identity of Esther, a lost child who’s the daughter of Tricia and Allen Albright (Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland). Esther went missing four years ago and has never been found, the presumption being that she was abducted.

The Albrights are a la-di-da clan who fly around in private jets and live in a mansion in the wealthy coastal town of Darien, Conn., where Allen is a painter of some stature and Tricia is a socialite who works the charity circuit. When Esther shows up, with a Russian accent she didn’t have before and an entirely different personality, the assumption is that her years in captivity just sort of…changed her. For a while, the film seems to stretch the power of suggestion to a place of sheer ludicrous insanity, given that whatever shifts in temperament Esther has supposedly undergone, it’s not as if kids change that much physically just because they’re four years older. The idea that the Albrights were so stricken by Esther’s disappearance that they’re willing to accept this girl with the frozen stare as their own boggles all credibility.

Have no fear, though. The film has an explanation. If, like me, you’re a fan of Julia Stiles and were wondering what she’s doing in a potboiler like this one, there’s an answer: The character of Tricia, rather than just being the usual parent/victim/stooge in an attack-of-the-kid-from-hell horror movie, has a devious agenda. She knows what’s going on. Stiles plays her with a frozen frown of her own, a will of iron, and a grand scheme that would explain the whole thing if it weren’t, in itself, preposterous. (It has something to do with restoring Allen’s spirit.) The movie turns into a battle of wits between the calculating mother and the fake daughter, with Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), the Albrights’ teenage son, adding a note of cheesy entitlement worthy of a Trump scion.

Yet what happens is so contrived that it requires even more audience contortions to accept than Esther’s original ruse. “Orphan: First Kill” is draggy and suspense-free. Fuhrman, as before, invests her role with a cold creepiness, but the minimal, haphazard script sticks her with playing Esther as a one-note mascot of terror, somewhere between Freddy Krueger and Leprechaun. If there’s another sequel, I hope it figures out how to make Esther the pretend monster girl into a character with more than one layer.

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