At the start of William Brent Bell’s “Orphan: First Kill,” the diabolical Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) is living under close surveillance in a psychiatric institute.
We know that Esther is bad – after all, this is a prequel and we’ve seen the original. I won’t reveal the big twist of the first film, though this one announces it in the opening scene as a refresher.
It isn’t long before Esther makes the kind of the escape that would inspire applause from Hannibal Lecter; the opening is amusing, though so inevitable, it amounts to little more than wheel spinning.
Esther winds up in the care of a mother, played by Julia Stiles, who believes Esther is her daughter who has been missing for years. Esther must keep up appearances and con the family into thinking she’s not really a serial killer in disguise.
The first act goes exactly as expected, as Esther puts on a good act, botches some of the details of the girl she’s impersonating but otherwise keep the parents convinced. Then, we get a wild twist that is probably impossible to predict. It’s at this point where the film surpasses inevitably low expectations.
Yeah, its trashy but, as far as these things go, its good trash.
The opening credits deem this not a Paramount Pictures film but a movie from Paramount Players and a product of Dark Castle. That’s the once-red hot, now long defunct production company that specialized in making big budget horror B-movies based on low budget horror B-movies.
Early in “Orphan: First Kill,” there’s a dumb sequence of a fencing match, pointlessly filmed in slow-motion and set to a bad Cake-soundalike on the soundtrack. Most movies couldn’t overcome a first act this dopey, but this one somehow does.
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“Orphan: First Kill” isn’t a sleeper, exactly, but this far better than expected and succeeds by being closer to a V.C. Andrews page turner than a slasher movie. It plays like a dark comedy with intentional laughs and even finds a strangely fitting moment to utilize Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.”
The film was originally just titled “Esther,” though this is hardly a layered exploration of a now-iconic horror figure. There’s little to the character beyond evil grin villainy, but Fuhrman is great in this. Stiles is to this what Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard were to the first movie: professional actors selling implausible characters.
Horror fans will note that Stiles actually starred in the mostly forgotten 2006 remake of “The Omen” but she is better utilized here.
To be clear, I hated the 2009 original. It’s one thing to do an Evil Kid horror movie and play a lot of the same notes we’re accustomed to. What “Orphan” did was to go through the motions, include some vile scenes of small children being involved in sick murders and leaning too heavily on a twist ending that is the most memorable thing about it.
I despised that movie.
Adding further insult is that nobody saw or remembers “Joshua,” a rival 2007 Evil Kid movie, once again starring Farmiga, which was jolting, smart and unique in the way it portrayed its protagonist without the expected supernatural justification.
The makers of “Joshua” understand what’s so unsettling about modern, entitled children. “Orphan” is simply a big budget remake of “Omen IV: The Awakening” (1991) and, of all things, was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, who had nothing to do with the second film.
To be sure, greenlighting a follow-up to the “Orphan” wasn’t setting the bar very high.
I wish the ending had bigger things in store than just setting up continuity and aligning this with the previous movie. However, the climactic showdown plays out with a slow motion, effects-heavy sequence that is, of all things, really beautiful.
The dialogue here is too exposition heavy, though occasionally witty. The film takes a moment to remind us of the difference between a parrot and a macaw. Considering how dependably bad and disposable most horror movie sequels and prequels are (like the 2018 “The Strangers: Prey At Night”), this is quite entertaining, though it comes nowhere close to classic status.
Two and a Half Stars