Little Girl Found
Orphan: First Kill
Prequels are, by their very design, hard to write so that they're actually interesting. If you have a character and you decide to look back at a point in their life a few months or years prior, then you have already set yourself up for failure. When you already know where someone is going to be all the dramatic tension is taken out of the equation. Distant prequels can work (those stories set in the same world or that have just a loose connection to the original work), but in general direct prequels are a no-win proposition. We know the character. We know where they end up. How does a prequel justify its own existence.
Orphan: First Kill might just be the rare prequel that actually finds a way to make it's concept work. Although, yes, it's another movie following a woman who eventually comes to be known as Esther, this film isn't just content in showing how she got that name, and how she got to the orphanage at the start of the first Orphan. No, instead it has a much darker and more twisted story it wants to tell. That works to the benefit of the film because, at a certain point, you stop nitpicking the timeline and the plot points and just get lost in the crazy action. First Kill, in point of fact, knows what its doing.
Before she was Ethel, the woman with a rare form of dwarfism (and a desire to kill) was a resident of the Saarne Institute. She's mentally unwell, and homicidal (which does put the "First Kill" subtitle at odds with the actual film as she kills before the story even starts). The woman, Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman), has no interest in "getting better" and would much rather be out in the world, conning, stealing, and killing as she liked. When she manages to seduce (and murder) a guard one night she manages to effect her escape, fleeing into the night. She hides out in her therapists car and, when the therapist makes it home, Leena kills her. She then steals some clothes, dresses herself up pretty, and finds a family she can worm her way into: the Albrights who had a daughter, Ethel, who went missing four years prior. Leena looks a lot like Ethel, so she becomes this girl and reports herself to the authorities as the missing girl.
The Albrights are, understandably, shocked to find out their little girl has shown up all these years later. Ethel says she was kidnapped by a woman and taken to Russia. That's where she's been for the last four years, and that's why she now speaks with an Eastern European accent. Ethel's bio-mother, Tricia (Julia Stiles), flies to Europe to pick her up, and then she's presented to the rest of the family -- father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) -- so they can start living their lives together once more. But there are doubts, as you'd expect there would be, and when Detective Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) comes sniffing around, "Ethel" might just have to murder to keep her perfect little new life in order.
For anyone that's seen the original Orphan, this story doesn't feel that different from the previous film. "Ethel" worms her way into a family and, over time, becomes more and more murderous. There's even the same plot about the woman falling for her "father" and wanting to kill everyone else so they can be together (which, naturally, will go exactly like you expect). The film doesn't find a lot of new ground for "Ethel" because, in part, so much of this story is preset by the previous film.
The Albrights are mentioned in the previous movie as the family that "Ethel" lived with before. She was their daughter, and then some "freak accident" happened that burned down their house and killed the rest of the family. Only "Ethel" was left alive, but the new family that adopted her started to wonder if the "little girl" was all she was supposed to be. Over time her secrets came out. They were listed in that film and illustrated here. We know all this, in a sense, so the film can't surprise us when it comes to "Ethel".
No, where the film finds new ground is in a mid-movie twist. It both comes as a total shock and yet makes perfect sense when you go back over and look at the details of the first two acts. I won't spoil the twist here because this prequel is new enough (at the time of this writing) and the twist really is great, but suffice it to say that the twist completely changes the movie. Instead of it being just a rehash of the first film, like it was setting up, instead the movie becomes a battle of wills between to strong women fighting for Ethel's own fate. It's impressive the film is able to pull this off because it really does change everything about the story.
It's a good thing the film has this twist because up until that point I was spending a lot of time looking at how the film managed to make Fuhrman into a slightly younger version of her character. When she was first cast in the role Fuhrman was 12 playing a woman thee times her age. Now, in this prequel, Fuhrman is closer in age to her character but, obviously, she's not at all close in height now. The film does a lot of visual trickery -- oddly angled shots, filming the character as she walks through unseen trenches, and even few body doubles from behind -- to achieve the look of Fuhrman still as Ethel. Its impressive but just obvious enough that I kept studying the film when I was meant to focus on the story.
Once the twist happens, though, my attention was back on the story itself. It really does draw you in because it's something we haven't seen before in these movies. Suddenly there's a new power dynamic, a new way of viewing the main character as well as those around her. The film pulls a bait and switch right at the halfway point and, impressively, it works. It's takes was could be a staid and basic prequel, a rehash of the original story showing us things we'd already been told, and then makes it into something wholly new. Well done.
And I will credit that the film doesn't even bother trying to play with the idea that Ethel is a little kid. Since we already know she isn't, any allusions to, say, The Good Son or any other murderous little kid film is ignored. That well can't be gone to twice and the movie knows it. This is a very different kind of horror-thriller and the film is smart enough to work in its new context to find different story ideas to play with.
Aiding this is, of course, the performances by the cast. Fuhrman is, of course, great in the role. She nailed it back when she was 12 and she hasn't lost her edge as this creepy, murderous woman. Julia Stiles is excellent as the mother, Tricia, who has to balance her own feelings about Ethel as more and more clues around this "little girl" come out. And Rossif Sutherland is great as the dad who wants nothing more than for "Ethel" to be the little girl he lost all those years ago. It's a solid cast that really makes the story watchable (I'd argue even more so than the cast of the first film).
In general I think that Orphan: First Kill is a movie that justifies the prequel conceit. Not every movie needs a prequel and, hell, most wouldn't benefit at all from the prequel treatment. But, occasionally, a good idea for a prequel comes along and the creative team is able to make it work. The team behind First Kill had the right idea, and they took the right amount of time before making it. They crafted a prequel that lives up to the standard of the bug-nuts crazy first movie while ratcheting up the crazy even more. It's great.