ORPHAN: FIRST KILL (2022) – Horror Prequel Offers Pick-Me-Up Plot Twist but Little More

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ORPHAN: FIRST KILL (2022) is the sequel to the horror movie ORPHAN (2009), a film I enjoyed quite a bit.

In that film, parents Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Pete Sarsgaard) adopt a sweet little 9-year-old girl from Estonia named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), only it turns out Esther isn’t so sweet! Yes, ORPHAN was one of those “evil children” movies, made better by a knockout plot twist that turned out to be the best part of the movie! As far as plot twists go, it was one of the better ones.

ORPHAN came out in 2009, so it’s been a while. ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is actually a prequel, as it sets out to explain how Esther first arrived here in the United States from Estonia, and since ORPHAN is famous for its plot twist, you can rest assured that there is yet another major twist in this movie, and on that front, it doesn’t disappoint. Even so, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL pales in comparison to the first movie.

Isabelle Fuhrman returns as Esther, the only cast member from the first movie to return, and it’s interesting because she’s no longer 9 years old, and so the filmmakers had to use lots of creative methods to make Fuhrman, now 25, look 9, including make-up, forced perspective, and a body double in some scenes. Of course, what makes things even more intriguing is the plot twist from the original film involved Esther’s age, making this role for Fuhrman here in 2022 even more of a kick.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL opens in Estonia with a pretty standard sequence that shows Esther, whose real name is Leena, escaping from a mental institution and making her way to the United States, where after some research on her part, she pretends to be young girl named Esther who had been missing for four years, her story being that she had been abducted and taken to Russia, before ultimately escaping. She is reunited with her “family,” a very wealthy set of parents, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen Albright (Rossif Sutherland) and a teenage brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) in a luxurious home in Connecticut.

Allen is the most overjoyed of the three to have his daughter back, as her disappearance had pretty much ruined his life, and he hadn’t been able to cope with the loss. But now Esther is back, and all is well. Sort of. In the original film, sweet little Esther wasn’t as she seemed. In this prequel, it’s not only Esther, but someone else who isn’t as they seem.

As plot twists go, the one here in ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is pretty good. It certainly saves the movie, because before the twist, which happens about halfway through this one, the plot was in trouble. The family accepted Esther just a little too easily for my tastes, and I wasn’t buying it. Of course, the twist arrives and suddenly it all makes sense.

It was fun to see Isabelle Fuhrman return as Esther, but that being said, both her performance and the character lack the same edge they had in the first movie. And even with portraying Esther in a more sympathetic light this time around, she’s certainly not a character I’m interested in seeing a movie series built around.

Julia Stiles is okay as the colder mommy Tricia, but where that character ultimately goes is nothing more than a standard exercise in movie villainy. Rossif Sutherland, the son of actor Donald Sutherland, fares better as the dad who is overjoyed to have his daughter back. And Matthew Finlan is so very annoying as big brother Gunnar.

David Coggeshall’s screenplay while including a notable twist doesn’t really take it far enough. I liked the plot twist, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t do enough to affect Esther’s character. In other words, while the tables are turned on her, we don’t really get to see what that is really like for her. It’s all rather superficial. It also doesn’t help that this is a prequel, and so the audience knows that regardless of what happens, Esther is still going to make it to the family in the original film.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL was directed by William Brent Bell, who also directed THE BOY (2016), a halfway decent horror movie, and its inferior sequel BRAHMS: THE BOY II (2020). While Bell does a good job with making Fuhrman look 9 years old again, the rest of the film is all rather average. It’s not scary, nor was I on the edge of my seat all that much. There was one decent sequence at a train station, but even that ended on a negative note. The print was also exceedingly dark, and even watching this on the big screen, there were many times where it was difficult to see what was going on.

I did like the subtext here, summed up by Gunnar’s line to Esther that this is America, and only his kind of people matter, and she doesn’t. So, watching Esther fight back and give these folks their comeuppance was mildly satisfying, but as I said, nothing that happens here is anywhere near as on point or as agonizing as it should have been.

While I really liked the first ORPHAN, this prequel, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is merely okay. It’s a standard chiller with a pick-me-up twist in the middle, but it never rises above the material. Instead, it just moves towards a rather unexciting climax.

Here’s hoping FIRST KILL will also be the last.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: STEPHANIE (2017)

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Shree Crooks as STEPHANIE (2017)

STEPHANIE (2017), a horror film about a little girl facing an unknown horrific threat all by her lonesome almost works.

Almost.

What stops this flick from ultimately succeeding is a lack of courage on the part of the filmmakers to take this story to the deepest dark places it should have gone. Instead, we have a plot tweak midway through that changes everything, and the film is worse off for it.

When STEPHANIE opens, young Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is home alone, occupying herself with her imaginary stuffed animal friends, getting into mischief as any child would do left to their own devices. She attempts among other things to cook and clean on her own, running afoul of every day threats like broken glass on the floor while walking barefoot. You’ll wince even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  Just why she’s by herself we’re not exactly sure, although there seems to have been some sort of apocalyptic incident that has wiped out at the very least the population around her.

One night, as she brushes her teeth and plays in front of the bathroom mirror, she hears a strange noise coming from the darkness. She knows what it is. Evidently, there is some sort of “monster” which enters her house at times, and to escape, she has to hide and remain silent. She hears the monster foraging throughout the house, growling and sniffing for prey, and then it leaves.

Adding to the mystery there’s also a dead body in her house, Stephanie’s brother, who seems to have succumbed to whatever malady wiped out everyone else. Stephanie it appears is immune. But then one day, Stephanie’s parents return, and while she is overjoyed to see them, she suddenly wonders why they left her alone in the first place.

And it’s at this point in the movie where the plot changes, and from here on in, things just  don’t work as well because the story enters territory we’ve all seen before and any innovative freshness the film possessed earlier disappears.

Which is too bad because the first half of STEPHANIE is really, really good, and the biggest reason why is the performance by young actress Shree Crooks as Stephanie. I hesitate to give such high praise to such a young actress, but she’s so good here she’s nearly mesmerizing. Early on, when she has the run of the house, she’s fun to watch, and later when the monster invades, you share in Stephanie’s terror. Crooks does fear really well.

So, early on the story had me hooked. I wanted to know why Stephanie was alone and just what kind of monster kept breaking into her house.  And I cared enough about young Stephanie that I was ready to watch a film about just one little girl on her own having to square off against a monstrous threat.

But ultimately this isn’t the story STEPHANIE has to tell. Her parents arrive home, and the inevitable plot twist isn’t up to snuff and only serves to steer the story into familiar territory, which is far less satisfying than what had come before it. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, STEPHANIE ends up being just a standard horror movie.

Frank Grillo and Anna Torv [recently of Netflix’ MINDHUNTER (2017-19)] play Stephanie’s parents, and while there’s nothing wrong with their performances, they unfortunately appear in the film’s inferior second half.

The screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski tells two different stories, and I enjoyed the first story much better than the second. The first half of the story with Stephanie home alone works so well I was really looking forward to seeing how she was going to deal with the monster in her house, but that confrontation never happens.

Director Akiva Goldsman sets up some suspenseful scenes early on, especially when the monster invades the house. Goldsman also deserves plenty of credit for capturing such a powerful performance from such a young performer. Shree Crooks completely carries the first half of the movie all by her lonesome.

Later, when the story pivots, the scares are much more standard, the results more predictable.

STEPHANIE did not have a theatrical release and was instead marketed straight to video on demand. I saw it on Netflix.

As it stands, it’s not a bad horror movie, but based on the way it started, it had the potential to be something very special, if only the initial story had been allowed to develop.

In spite of this, Shree Crooks delivers the performance of the movie. She’s terrific throughout, and she’s the main reason to see STEPHANIE.

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