Orphan’s twist never ceases to be jarring and hilarious in prequel Orphan: First Kill

In a truly bizarre piece of casting, the star of 2009’s murderous adopted kid horror Orphan returns for more uncanny violence in prequel Orphan: First Kill. Suspension of disbelief can only go so far, writes Lillian Crawford.


Orphan: First Kill, directed by William Brent Bell, is the prequel no one asked for to the 2009 horror Orphan, directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. That film introduced Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther Coleman, née Leena Klammer, the titular orphan from Russia who was adopted into an unsuspecting family led by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard to bloody results. See, Esther/Leena is no satanic infant—she is, as told through laboured exposition, a serial killer in her early thirties condemned by a glandular disorder to resemble a ten-year-old girl.

What is immediately striking in First Kill is that, despite being set two years prior to the events of the original film, Fuhrman is thirteen years older. Given that the film rests firmly on the ‘child says “fuck”’ shock value of films dating back to The Exorcist and The Omen, this is no longer possible with Fuhrman’s more defined 25-year-old face. She’s filmed from behind with a child double, creating a jarring effect that never ceases to be hilarious. Suspension of disbelief can only go so far.

One of the things that both Orphan films play to is the horror of paedophilia, or more specifically of a child having adult sexual desires. The most disturbing scene in the original sees Esther put on heavy makeup and a little black dress in an attempt to seduce her foster father. It is played purely for the sake of discomfort, not to any potential biting critique of the sexualisation of children which it therefore becomes an extension of itself. First Kill opens with a similar scene in which Esther kisses a guard at her Estonian psychiatric facility before smashing his head against a wall. Again, no power is given to her in this scenario.

The most compelling characters in the films are the maternal figures to Esther/Leena. Julia Stiles takes over from Vera Farmiga here as a mother grappling with the realisation that their daughter is a demonic little shit. Where Farriga leaned into drunken hysterics, Stiles takes a more reserved approach to struggling with the limits of unconditional love in First Kill. Both women’s torment comes down to having permissible sex, with Esther/Leena lashing out through lustful rage. Stiles works well with the premise, although she often seems suitably baffled by it, even as she delivers this instalment’s expository twist.

While Orphan leant firmly into an indie Gothic aesthetic, First Kill more closely fits the matted grey hues of contemporary Cold War-era pictures like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. Esther/Leena’s characterisation, through her lacy dresses, choker, and hair ribbons, firmly plants her in an outmoded past. She resembles the china dolls which dominated horror franchises in the 2000s, and which line the skirting boards of her new bedroom. Indeed, First Kill never feels fresh enough to warrant a release in 2022, failing to convince that it is anything but a late cash-grab attempt to capitalise on the success of series like The Conjuring films.

Fuhrman is deeply committed to the role, and even with the incredulity that her adult self is supposedly younger than her child self, she proves her creepy potential. She proved herself to be a formidable actress in last year’s The Novice, in which she played a college freshman hellbent on a rowing scholarship with extremely self-damaging results. Fuhrman’s said she wants to continue playing Esther/Leena which, unless they resurrect her from the icy depths she plunged to at the end of Orphan and somehow fix her disorder, would only grow more farcical. It would be far better for her career and talents if she stuck to original projects.