‘Orphan: First Kill’ Film Review: Lurid Horror Prequel Cranks Up the Camp Value to 11

Isabelle Fuhrman returns for a sequel that leans in gloriously to the franchise’s inherent absurdity

Orphan First Kill

You know the story (or maybe you don’t): A grown woman who looks like a child due to “proportional dwarfism” scams her way into being adopted by a loving family, only to terrorize them and attempt to seduce the husband. So goes the plot of “Orphan,” a middling-yet-gonzo horror flick from 2009.

Now, Paramount is taking that bizarre premise and extending it even further for the prequel “Orphan: First Kill,” directed by William Brent Bell and written by David Coggeshall.

“First Kill” takes the best part of its predecessor — its camp value — and dials things up to 11, delivering a movie that demands to be seen at rowdy theaters and sleepovers worldwide.

The film takes place in 2007, before the events of “Orphan.” If you’ve seen the original film, the first half of “First Kill” is numbing in its predictability. Our tiny killer, Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman, “The Novice”), is locked in the Saarne Institute in her native Estonia. Her “first kill” actually took place before the film even started; she got to Saarne by joining a family and then murdering them. (Fingers crossed for an “Orphan: First Kill 2 — The Firstest Kill.”)

After breaking out of Saarne, Leena adopts the persona of Esther Albright, a missing American girl. She covers up the scars from her hospitalization with her signature ribbons and explains away her eastern European accent by saying she was kidnapped and taken to Russian. Her grief-stricken new family is all too willing to believe her outlandish story.

It seems like she’s hit the jackpot: Her new parents, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland, “Possessor”), are old-money Connecticut residents. In their first scene, they watch their son, Gunnar (Matthew Finlan, “My Fake Boyfriend”), win a fencing tournament. The film is poised to play out just like the first, especially since we know Esther must live through this story undiscovered in order for “Orphan” to happen. But then — a delicious twist.

For certain millennials, “Orphan” holds a kind of camp cachet. We watched it with our friends and giggled perversely as Leena, playing an 9-year-old girl, attempted to seduce her adopted father. “First Kill” leans into that energy hard. This film seems to understand its own absurdity much better than the first, and rightly so. When your film is based around a bloodthirsty villain who has been medically cursed to look exactly like a child (a disability that does not seem to actually exist), there’s no virtue in playing it safe.

As a result, “First Kill” is peppered with delightful idiosyncrasies. The Albrights’ wealth is signaled by a collection of Fabergé eggs. Leena befriends a feral rat in their Connecticut mansion. Ostensibly for period accuracy, the well-heeled Gunnar uses a flip phone. A child therapist with a pet parrot plays a pivotal role in the deception. And Leena’s daddy issues are center stage. At the beginning of the film she fondly watches a scene from the 1938 movie “Poor Little Rich Girl.” In it, Shirley Temple’s character sings to her father, “Marry me and let me be your wife.”

Of course, if you’ve seen the original film, it’s difficult to watch “First Kill” without constantly thinking about its production. Fuhrman reprises her role, although she was actually a child when the first film was shot and is now 25. The filmmakers mainly employ makeup and forced perspective, as well as two child body doubles for wider shots, so that Fuhrman could play Leena/Esther. Fuhrman is a fantastic actor, but, like any healthy 25-year-old woman, she no longer has the face of a third-grader. The on-screen result is slightly uncanny, though it does make the whole child-who-is-secretly-a-grown-woman thing more convincing.

Bell and Coggeshall have made a film that feels cognizant of its own silliness. This may be on purpose: Bell’s “The Boy,” about two old, wealthy creeps who treat a large doll like their human son, is another modern camp classic, and Coggeshall wrote for  MTV’s very meta “Scream” TV series. But “First Kill” owes an enormous hat tip to Julia Stiles, whose stellar, icy performance sells some of the film’s most ludicrous moments with aplomb.

To explain the delights of “Orphan: First Kill” in full would require spoilers, but know that those delights are many, at least if you’ve got the requisite sick sense of humor. This film is hardly scary — you can see every kill coming from a mile away — but it is still unquestionably horror. This transgressive, ghoulish stuff is what makes the genre fantastic, and “First Kill” gives its protagonist a final chapter that fits her freakishness. Yes, it is problematic (see: playing fast and loose with the concept of dwarfism), but it also takes place in an alternate universe where rich kids have flip phones and dour therapists have parrots.

It is wonderfully impossible to take this film seriously, meaning it’s best enjoyed with others. Paramount+ subscribers should hasten to their couches with their largest bowls of popcorn and funniest friends. Unlike the families who’ve welcomed Leena Klammer into their homes, you won’t regret it.

“Orphan: First Kill” opens in US theaters, on demand and on Paramount+ Aug. 19.