Dir: William Brent Bell. Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland, Matthew Finlan. 15, 99 minutes.
A prequel to Orphan is such an odd proposition. Jaume Collet-Serra’s nasty but ultimately conventional 2009 horror film has only stuck around in the collective consciousness due to its listicle-friendly twist: the reveal that Esther, the homicidal young girl adopted by Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) Coleman, is in fact a 33-year-old Estonian woman named Leena Klammer, who was born with a rare hormonal disorder that stunted her physical growth.
The child actor who played Esther back then – Isabelle Fuhrman – is now in her mid-twenties. But there can be no Orphan without her perfectly modulated performance – doe-eyed, serene and deeply disquieting. Her return to the franchise was a given. At no point in Orphan: First Kill does Fuhrman ever look anything other than a woman in her mid-twenties, despite the exhaustive use of forced perspective and child actor body doubles. Or the return of Esther’s Wednesday Addams-lite wardrobe of pigtails and Victorian dresses. But that’s simply the buy-in for First Kill, that little piece of artistic licence that singlehandedly derails the film unless you’re generous enough to look the other way.
And First Kill does, in truth, deserve that touch of clemency. There’s a surprising amount to enjoy here, with director William Brent Bell (behind The Boy franchise, with its equally ludicrous premise centered on a haunted doll) making the smart decision to turn the unintentional camp of Orphan into intentional camp, alongside adding a dose of satire about the corruptive pressures of the nuclear family.
Collet-Serra’s film took vague inspiration from the true-crime case of 34-year-old Barbora Skrlova, an orphan inclined towards violent and abusive behaviour, who was later caught impersonating a 13-year-old boy. First Kill draws more, perhaps, from the story of Frédéric Bourdin, notably retold in the 2012 documentary The Imposter. He was a French con artist who tricked a Texas family into believing he was their missing son, who’d disappeared years earlier. In First Kill, and after escaping from the Saarne Institute referenced in the first film, Leena comes to America under the guise of Esther, the missing child of the Albrights: mother Tricia (Julia Stiles), father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan).
Leena, as Esther, claims she was kidnapped by an unnamed woman and spirited away to Russia. Very few questions are asked of her, nor her odd behaviour. Everyone’s just so relieved to have her back home. But, since the audience is already clued into the truth about her identity, screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace instead position Leena as a twisted kind of anti-hero, the film’s tension wrung out of the increasing probability that she’ll be caught up in her own lie.
We watch her, then, as she shuffles into an airplane bathroom to down a miniature bottle of vodka while cursing herself that she stumbled over a minor detail in her story. At one point, she befriends a mouse. At another, she drives around in a car with dark sunglasses on and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, with Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” blasting away on the stereo. It’s not the only delightfully on-the-nose track in the film, with Interpol’s “Evil” receiving a little screen time, too.
Stiles, on that note, isn’t here simply to play the “concerned mother” role. The Albrights are actually quite unpleasant to some degree – uptight, self-centered and privileged, concerned more about gala dinners than the mental state of their highly traumatised daughter. And, as the narrative takes a sharp mid-film turn, Stiles’s performance grows more deliciously demented and outsized. It’s not quite the Bride of Chucky-ification of the Orphan franchise, since the film never becomes fully self-aware, but it is sharp-toothed and vicious enough in its satire that it even gives Esther her own Breakfast Club-esque makeover scene. Just do your best to ignore the very obvious sight of Fuhrman waddling around on her knees for half the film.
‘Orphan: First Kill’ is in cinemas from 19 August