Monday, August 22, 2022

From Orphan to Icon

Released in 2009, Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan was a breath of fresh air in big screen horror. Torture porn's hold on the genre was slowly being replaced by mixed quality remakes and found footage, making this oddball high concept twisty thriller with A-list actors all the more strange for a theatrical hit. Best of all, it was GOOD. We mostly remember it for having one of the wackiest, most rewarding (and fine: maybe a little insensitive) twists, but even before we discover Esther's secret, Orphan is on fire.

When news rolled out that there would be a prequel with Fuhrman reprising her lead role, I was thrilled. On both a visual and storytelling level, how do you revisit this character thirteen years later (in the real world) when the point of the first film was a) she looked like a child b) she wasn't a child and c) we know where she ends up. It's a lot to juggle for an audience who knows the material, but small tidbits of behind-the-scenes intel (the heavy use of forced perspective, the casting of Julia Stiles, Fuhrman's clear glee with the character) left me with very little doubt that Orphan: First Kill would make my day.

Spoiler alert: it did. 

Quick Plot: You remember Esther, but before she made her way to the snowy suburbs of Connecticut by way of Toronto, our Estonian shortie was better known as violent mental patient Leena. All it takes is a new and naive art therapist to help Leena find her path to western freedom.

The next step is to target the right family, preferably one with a missing child, comfortable bank account, and hot patriarch. Enter the Albrights, proud descendents of Mayflower passengers with a sprawling estate and simmering WASPy tension. Dad Allen is a painter who was deeply fractured by the disappearance of Esther, while mom Tricia continued her fancy charity work and organic smoothie lifestyle while also encouraging older son Gunnar through his passionate fencing training.

Rich people, man. They're something.

Leena slips into Esther's lifestyle easily enough, quickly bonding with Allen over their shared artistic ability. But Leena (who we'll now call Esther because an icon deserves nothing less) senses something isn't quite right, especially when she clocks a private investigator grabbing some of her well-experienced fingerprints.

To say any more about Orphan: First Kill would be cruel, especially since, in an act of shockingly refreshing restraint, the marketing avoided spoiling any twists. Go into it fresh and open knowing you'll be rewarded by the best Lifetime thriller not made by Lifetime.

I mean that as the biggest compliment I have in my arsenal: Orphan: First Kill is a trashy joy (complete with a drool-worthy kitchen). It's slightly less bonkers in some aspects than its predecessor, which had my jaw dropping in the best of ways, but still manages to throw us plenty of juicy curves. Director William Brent Bell (of the underrated The Boy) has a refreshing approach to his style. So much of current horror seems to have learned the wrong lessons from Final Destination, forcing every scene of violence to unfurl slowly as if trying to land on some "Scariest Moments In Horror" listicle. Sometimes, you can just walk into a man's house and kill him as soon as his back is turned. 

If there's a flaw to First Kill (aside from its title, which we'll get back to) it's that the finale seems to be a little TOO close to its Lifetime style, cramming almost too much action into such a short amount of time without room for a proper denouement. Still, considering it honors the original's callbacks to The Good Son, my complaints are minimal.  

Everything here is working as it should. Brett Detar's score is plucky strings with a wicket attitude. Kim H. Ngo's costumes are chic when they need to be and "this girl thinks she's Shirley Temple but is actually Baby Jane" elsewhere. The makeup department and camerawork do wonders at turning 25-year-old Fuhrman into a 31-year-old-channeling-a-10-year-old. THERE'S A LOT HAPPENING FOLKS.

And all of it...well, all of it is pretty darn fun.

High Points
There's something truly wonderful about a film franchise (in the making) that embraces and celebrates women. Vera Farmiga is no easy act to follow, but Julia Stiles is perfectly cast and plays her WASPy foil grandly. And to no one's surprise, Isabelle Fuhrman crawls back into Esther's frills and ribbons with a shockingly robust performance that rightfully gives us a villain, victim, and camp queen

Low Points
When we first meet Leena, we're told she JUST RECENTLY murdered someone, and there's little doubt that it wasn't her debut. So why, goodness gracious WHY is this film subtitled First Kill? Had it been Esther's First Kill, I'd be all for it (since technically, this is Leena's rebirth as Esther) but nope. I doubt it's the fault of the (very good) screenplay, but considering writer David Coggeshall's name is on another one of the worst titled horror sequels of this century, he's an easy scapegoat. That movie? The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia

Lessons Learned
Marriage means occasionally dealing with rich pricks to show your love for your wife

If you want to stay on Julia Stiles' good side, remember this: all macaws are parrots, but not all f*cking parrots are macaws

Kale smoothies are gross, but dead mouse kale smoothies are even worse

I can't imagine that by the time this post goes live, you haven't already heard enough glowing things about Orphan: First Kill to have made you watch it, but seriously: watch it. Streaming on Paramount Plus, it's the rare horror sequel/prequel that fully understands the possibilities of the genre's camp nature and balances that with layered characters who have plenty of places to go. It's a joy. 

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