KV: The first Orphan (2009) movie, in a word, slaps. In spite of espousing arguably ableist views, portraying orphans as spooky, and pushing an iffy “believe women but not little girls” message, it was well-paced, had a lot of incredible scares, and presented a touching and devastating portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of its prequel, Orphan: First Kill (2022). Directed by William Brent Bell (The Boy), the film offers us a glimpse into the backstory, hinted at in the first movie, of Esther Albright (Isabelle Fuhrman), the eponymous orphan. Perhaps in an effort to address some of the more problematic insinuations of the first movie, its prequel somewhat ambivalently positions Esther as the hero of the story, with rich white Americans, much like in real life, occupying the role of antagonists. It’s difficult to provide a synopsis of the movie without giving away the (admittedly underwhelming) conceit of the film, but could you give us a brief summary of the premise Zoe?


ZA: Ooft, here we go. The film opens in Estonia, 2007 — two years before the events of the first film — at the Saarne Institute. For the real Orphanheads amongst us, the looming spooky Saarne Institute we see before us will be familiar as the asylum Esther had escaped after being housed there as “their most dangerous patient.” Here we find Esther (née Leena Klammer), a violent 31-year-old woman who has hypopituitarism, resulting in her physically appearing as a child despite her age. We are told, through clunky exposition by her doctor, that she had been using her appearance to her advantage, insinuating herself into families as a child, trying to seduce the father and upon being rebuffed, robbing and/or murdering the family. It’s kind of her thing.

When we finally get to Esther/Leena, she is playing the hits, ie. appearing as a well-mannered little child, then revealing herself as a violent and intelligent threat at the opportune moment. How plausible this schtick is — now played by the same actress 13 years on, and CGI-ed to hell — is up for debate. Regardless, it’s a classic for a reason, and through some pedo-baiting, murder and copious sneaking, Leena escapes. She is charioted away in the boot of a car of an unsuspecting art therapist, who was already having a rough day before — plot twist — Leena murders her, then uses her apartment as Child Grift HQ, scrolling missingkidsicanassumetheidentityof.com, where she decides on Esther Albright.

We are then introduced to the Albrights, with the mother — whose name I don’t recall, and will only refer to as Julia Stiles because oh my god it’s Julia Stiles — and the absentee father (Rossif Sutherland) having a tense conversation during the (???) fencing match (??????) of their teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). JS then gets the call that Esther has potentially been found, and goes to the American Embassy in Russia to meet the child, who, upon viewing her for about two seconds, JS confirms is Esther. (As DNA testing did not exist in 2007, this was the only way to confirm the identity of this American child who has been missing for four years, and now has a full-on Estonian accent and different face.)

The grift is on. Esther has found herself in a wealthy American family, however, despite their determination to make the Estonian adult/child Leena square fit in the Esther-shaped hole in their lives, things are not what they seem. In order not spoil too much of the midpoint twist in the film, I will just say the film pivots to Leena now being coerced to stay in this family as Esther, with her only solace being a friendship with a charming rodent that lives in her room, and her weird thirsty painting sessions with her fake dad, where he shows her the marvels of UV painting (just like in the first movie — again, one for the Orphanheads). This culminates in a violent confrontation where Esther’s hand is pushed, fundamentally in her own self defence, to kill (again).


KV: Yeah, what was with the rat? I came for a spooky movie and all of a sudden I was watching Ratatouille with way more poisoned food. (To be perfectly honest, I have not seen Ratatouille, but I assume there is little to no poisoned food?) It was a strangely revisionist choice to make Esther such a sympathetic character and give her a fish-out-of-water storyline, when we know that in every other context, both in her past and future lives, she is calculating, ruthless, and always five steps ahead of everyone else. I feel like the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner with her character, and her absence as a villain meant that almost every other character had to take up the mantle. Even minor characters who had no idea that she wasn’t a little girl, who had recently returned from being kidnapped for four years, were unbelievably brutal. (At one point, Gunnar’s friend jokes about her having spent the last four years in a “sex gulag”?!) It felt as though they spread themselves too thin to drive home some sort of murky message about privilege, and it meant that every character apart from Esther was incredibly shallowly drawn.

ZA: Murky really is the word for it, isn’t it? It was an incredibly frustrating watch, especially when Esther makes it to America and in her victimisation by the Albrights, she loses everything that makes up her character, which was one of the (many) strengths of the first film. It’s like Leena decided to take up method acting as Esther and submitted to the will of a very killable WASP throughout the film, despite her history and future of being a master manipulator and lethal force. In rejecting the figure of Esther as the villain, the narrative necessarily has to become increasingly convoluted and distant from the first film to accommodate this shift in character. This is not saying sympathetic portrayals of villains are unavoidably bad, but by placing this film so temporally close to Orphan, the filmmakers didn’t allow themselves room to explore this. A movie about Leena’s actual first kill (as the title promises and does not deliver) in Estonia, and learning about how she became the killer we know her to be, would have been really interesting! Or a movie about her time with the Albrights, cutting loose as the honed murderer we see two years later? It just seems to be a really strange choice to do an origin story of a character at age 31 who dies at age 33.


KV: Absolutely, and I’m not sure that it left any of the actors with anywhere to go with their performances. Fuhrman’s portrayal was compellingly unnerving at times, though if I’m honest I also found it hard to get past the … age issue. It was hard to take a supposedly tense scene seriously when a shot of Esther from behind showed a 10-year-old girl scampering down a hallway, and then cut to a closeup of the face of a person who can definitely legally rent a car.

Ultimately, it kept my attention for the most part and I understand that the creators of this film were probably not trying to achieve the same atmosphere as the original, so we should take the film on its own merits. However, for a film pitched as a psychological horror, I’m going to need to be spooked at least once and unfortunately this simply didn’t deliver on that.


ZA: Yes the CGI/body double combo was really not pleasant on the eyes or for the overall movie experience. Why not recast? Full disclosure, I myself am an Orphanhead and love the first film, which is why Orphan: First Kill was so disappointing for me. It suffered, as many prequels do, from low stakes. You know exactly how the film is going to end, and to keep it novel, all the interesting and scary elements of the Esther story were discarded. Between the ham-fisted villainy of the antagonists, the baffling choice to try and absolve Esther of intent and guilt of the climactic crime — which, incidentally, directly emulates all her previous and future crimes (really bad luck on that one, Esther) — and the shoddy performances, it’s a solid boo hiss from me.


Orphan: First Kill is currently playing in cinemas. 

3 / 10