Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

2009’s Orphan to this day remains one of the most underrated horror films of the 2000s, and a personal favorite. Brilliantly, this gem masquerades as an evil-kid movie, but is in fact far more sinister and disturbing than one would initially suspect. Spoiler alert for a film that’s over a decade old incoming… In the climax of Orphan, we learned that 9-year-old Esther (played by then-12 year-old actress Isabelle Fuhrman, who had only previously featured in Dakota Fanning drama Hounddog before that point) is actually a 33-year-old institutionalized psychopath named Leena, and suffers from proportional dwarfism. I recall that key twist being the talk of my movie theater amongst both patrons and employees alike. This is a hard enough pill to swallow for one film, let alone two. How would Orphan: First Kill follow up such an iconic, memorable first entry? The answer is by doubling down on Esther’s terrifying antics, then crafting a foil for her carnage in the form of Julia Stiles’s cutthroat Tricia.

The first order of business when one escapes from an Estonian mental asylum? Why, look up missing girls aged 9-12 years old, of course! Set in 2007—a whole two years before the events of the original Orphan, in case anyone is counting—Leena, said to be the most dangerous patient at the Saarne Institute, breaks out in violent fashion. With a new identity in her crosshairs, Leena poses as 9-year-old Esther Albright. Leena completely immerses herself in this new identity as only Fuhrman could do. Allegedly, Leena, as Esther, claims that she was abducted by a woman and stolen away to Russia, where she was forced to coexist in this new woman’s orbit. Now, she will return to the Albright family and their sprawling mansion. Esther and her accent may be a little different than they remember…

The Albrights are filthy rich, and there is clearly a mysterious history—their daughter, Esther, has been missing for four years, and Leena, as Esther, comes to live with them in Darien, Connecticut without the knowledge of whatever baggage they may carry. Fiercely protective matriarch Tricia (Stiles, “O”, Save the Last Dance) will stop at any means to protect her children; father Allen (Rossif Sutherland, Possessor, The Retreat) seems the happiest at Esther’s return, thrilled by her sudden passion for painting; and finally aggressive fencing champion Gunnar (Matthew Finlan, Brazen, My Fake Boyfriend) is Esther’s too-cool brother, already flabbergasted by her blatant weirdness. Esther is shown to her room, exactly as she left it including a massive creepy dollhouse, and a child-size vinyl player. The only song she plays is “Glory of Love,” the very same one that Esther obsessively sang in 2009’s film. Esther must learn how to coexist with the Albrights to forge ahead a bold new future for herself far from the Saarne Institute.

Not everyone is going to love the direction they chose to go in this second film, nor will they appreciate that no CGI de-aging technology was used for Esther to keep consistency with the original. Rewatching the films back to back, Isabelle Fuhrman’s obvious age progression is even more glaring (though it never personally bothered me). In the face specifically, one can really see her age. When she first gets to Connecticut posting as Esther, the second the ribbons come out along with the “Lizze Borden”-esque dresses, it perfectly recalibrates Fuhrman’s performance with her childhood self. Director William Brent Bell (The Boy, Stay Alive) constantly uses perspective to emphasize how tiny Esther really is compared to all the other characters. Call her Little Dwarfin’ Annie, or a “psycho dwarf,” but whatever the case, Fuhrman is anxious to get her hands dirty as evil Esther.

Those that are able to get on board with the eccentricities of First Kill are going to find a surprisingly brutal, supremely bizarre, and captivating slice of horror fun. A new twist featuring Tricia as Esther’s intellectual equal keeps this prequel feeling fresh, even if we can feel the destined ending already coming from a mile away. Many will claim First Kill is not entirely necessary, but clearly there was something to be gained here for fans and creatives alike in revisiting Esther’s grim universe. Obviously, this is not quite as ground-breaking or effective as the OG. Neatly bookended against Orphan, First Kill brings the saga of Esther full circle in a fiery blaze of glory, fueled by an excellent turn from Isabelle Fuhrman.

Orphan: First Kill reminds us that there’s always been something wrong with Esther when it debuts to Paramount+ and in select theaters on Friday, August 19th.

Leave a Reply