A few days ago, there was a flurry of buzz about Orphan: First Kill on social media, and I was dead convinced that it had to be some kind of viral marketing campaign. I had a hard time believing that many people even watched the movie, much less were excited about it.
But I was still hooked on the potential enough to watch it with minimal investment while I was doing other stuff. (The prequel and the original are both streaming on Paramount Plus). And I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the heck out of it.
I had never seen the first movie. The poster was all over the place for a while, and the premise seemed pretty straightforward: evil little girl going around killin’ folks. It seemed to just blend into all of the other Blumhouse-style horror movies that were all over the place in the late 2000s, and I wasn’t particularly interested. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, said, “Huh,” and then forgot all about it.
The prequel starts out feeling like it’s going to be more of the same thing, this time with the premise of the “franchise” already spoiled, making you wonder what’s the point of a repeat. But before too long, it starts pulling in some older-style horror movie twists, suggesting that yes, they’re well aware of what the audience is expecting.
Then, just as it seems to be settling back into its formula, it pulls out the One Thing I Like, transforming into what’s practically a different movie. Unfortunately, it’s also the One Thing I Can’t Say Anything About Without Ruining It, so I’ve got to put the rest behind a spoiler break.
I will say that I really enjoyed it, and definitely consider it worth watching, even if you haven’t seen the original, but you know the original’s “twist.” No, I don’t think I could call it an intricately-crafted masterwork, since I don’t even think I’d claim that it all makes sense. But I thought it was a lot of fun. Anything beyond that is a spoiler, and it’s absolutely worth going in unspoiled!
For what it’s worth, I liked First Kill enough to stream the original Orphan immediately afterwards (or at least, fast-forwarding through the slow parts, since I already knew that was going to happen). The original has some really good performances, especially from 11-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, but it’s essentially what I’d expected all along. Lurid, full of jump scares and other scenes of cheap tension, and the uncomfortably self-serious exploitation of trash horror. I don’t even feel obliged to be all that diplomatic about not liking it, since I think it was pretty tastelessly manipulative about using miscarriage, mental illness, alcoholism, and really, anything else it could pull in to gin up some tension.
I thought the prequel was better in just about every way, happily settling into being self-aware trash without winking at the camera and also without descending into camp.
It also was pretty clever in how it built off of the original and even improved it in a couple of places. For instance, I may have just skipped through it, but I don’t recall seeing any justification in Orphan for Esther’s UV-light drawings all over her room. Was it ever foreshadowed? It seemed like it was just added it as a cool visual so they could say “it’s a metaphor for the darkness that was hidden all along!” or some such. In any case, the prequel actually makes it feel like an inspired choice.
Since I went into the prequel knowing nothing about it other than “there’s a twist,” I really liked the vaguely Hitchcockian opening: build up sympathy for and connection to a protagonist, only to have her killed off quickly and unceremoniously. For me, that was the first sign that the movie was trying to do something genuinely interesting.
I loved that Fuhrman came back to play Esther, 13 years later — apparently, that wasn’t the original plan, which seems baffling to me now since I can’t imagine this movie without it — since having a much older actress playing the same part in a prequel is really only possible with Orphan‘s goofy premise. The climax of the original had a little girl wearing aging make-up to remind the audience that the character was supposed to be in her 30s. Now that the secret has been revealed, the prequel can have a young woman dressing as a little girl and maintaining that feeling of eerie not-right-ness throughout.
But obviously, the best thing about Orphan: First Kill is the twist that turns Esther into the protagonist, trying to survive in a house full of psychopaths. The movie demands that you shift allegiances constantly, more often than not rooting for the worst possible person just because you’ve got no better options. (Ironically, the one character I never felt any sympathy for or connection to was the father, even though he was the only character who remained blameless). I’d been thinking that the character of the art therapist at the beginning of the movie was included only for the shock value of her murder, but now I’m thinking that she was there to “train” the audience about what was to come: This is Esther’s movie, and don’t forget it.
The movie struck me as so clever and confident because it accomplishes so much just by flipping the script. It allows all the characters to point out, openly, the absurdities of the premise, instead of having to pretend that no one realizes how nonsensical it all is. It gives retroactive motivation to most of the stuff that Esther does in the first movie, which at the time was just “creepy psychopathic girl.” And it just makes the whole movie a lot more fun, with Julia Stiles getting to dial up the nastiness, and the asshole brother seeming like he deserved everything he had coming to him.
In fact, even though Orphan: First Kill essentially becomes a black comedy in its second half, it’s pretty good at subtly suggesting a pseudo-morality that just doesn’t exist in the first one. Orphan just had Esther wounding or murdering people when it seemed like the plot needed a scene with someone in peril. I don’t think the prequel is ever crass enough to suggest real sympathy with Esther, but it does at least suggest a motivation for the things she does. The other characters feel like obstacles, instead of just victims.