It’s Estonia, 2007, and the opening sequence of “Orphan: First Kill” assures we are in the realm of a horror movie because it opens with an overheard shot of a car snaking up a mountainous road blanketed in snow. That’s an obvious crib from “The Shining” that horror filmmakers can’t ever seem to resist, and it’s never not a charming genre in-joke in the key of the Wilhelm Scream, an evocative and easy reference filmmakers love to throw in to put us in a chilling mood.
From there, this prequel to the 2009 cult favorite “Orphan,” now directed by William Brent Bell taking over from the first film’s director Jaume Collet-Serra, mostly diverges from such high-minded fare, settling into trashy TV movie vibes for the rest of its twist-laden run time. Despite another marvelously deranged performance from Isabelle Fuhrman (with the actress now 25, at an age closer to her character’s than she was at 10 years old in the original), “First Kill” can’t quite live up to the reputation of the original, beloved for its risible-on-paper plot about a 33-year-old Estonian immigrant able to pass herself off as a 12-year-old due to a pituitary disorder that keeps her proportionally small.
That’s not to say “Orphan: First Kill” doesn’t have its share of thrills, like a violent escape from an Estonian psychiatric facility in which “Esther” (whose real name is Leena) brutally shanks a prison warden before stealing the identity of a missing American girl and heading to the United States pretending to be her. There are less stakes but bigger world-building possibilities this time around now that the audience is in on the reality of Esther’s true identity: She’s a grown woman, not a child, and that comes with complications.
As with 2009’s “Orphan” starring Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, Esther again targets a grief-addled couple, Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and Tricia (Julia Stiles). The Albrights are a moneyed family reeling from the unexplained disappearance of their daughter Esther, whom Leena comfortably inhabits because of her stature and seeming mastery of childlike bemusement. But this time around, “Orphan: First Kill” weighs the existential quandaries at her core: Is the whole ruse worth it at all? Seeing Fuhrman down a mini-bottle of vodka in an airplane lavatory after reuniting with her “mother” Tricia is a hilarious image. Screenwriter David Coggeshall seems to have leaned into the campy possibilities of the original movie.
The particulars of Leena’s ruse are laid out here in ways that must seem exhausting for her. She has to tape down her breasts, for one thing, and keep her mouth shut around friends of her teenage “brother” Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), who are quick to point out that she dresses like Lizzie Borden. Pigtails, ribbons, and all, Leena (and therefore Fuhrman) is convincingly child-aged on the outside, but her weary, darkened soul is obviously miserable on the inside.
A detective (Hiro Kanagawa) who was assigned to the original investigation of the Albright daughter’s disappearance gets too curious, and so of course meets a grim fate worthy of this franchise and its blunt approach to casual violence. “Orphan: First Kill,” however, hinges upon a twist introduced at the top of the third act that throws everything we’ve seen prior outrageously out of whack. Stiles, as the brown-haired and resigned mother feigning enthusiasm over reuniting with someone purporting to be her daughter, reaffirms her knack for focused performances of women in crisis. And that aforementioned third act twist is delivered in a nastily sudden way by her character.
Karim Hussain, the director of photography who has worked closely with Brandon Cronenberg and on other genre entries, shoots the proceedings with a gauzy, somnambulant haze. There’s a musty and even funereal decorum to it all, with the camera whirling around the actors’ faces during particularly harrowing moments. Coggeshall’s script isn’t especially sharp, as the movie really does hinge around that big twist, but the visual approach and performances from the actors give “Orphan: First Kill” an edge that should satisfy fans of the original.
“Orphan: First Kill” is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Paramount Plus.