Bell: Orphan: First Kill (2022)
Orphan: First Kill is the prequel to 2009’s Orphan and like the original it’s an instant camp classic. Once again, the main character is Leena, a 31-year old woman with hypopituitarism, which makes her appear like a 10-year old child. This time, though, we know about Leena’s condition from the start, and see the trajectory that took her from a psychiatric institution in Estonia to the first American family she shacked up with – the Albrights. The film opens as a monster movie, with Leena housed in the core of an austere Soviet building, where she’s treated like Hannibal Lecter, as psychiatrists exposit on both her extreme evil and the “depths of her will to be free.” The difference now is that Isabelle Fuhrman, the actress who plays Leena, is actually an adult, adding a new layer of absurdity – or perhaps more accurately a new degree of uncanniness, since with the fully-grown adult characters all subtly raised above the floor, and a plethora of high and low angle shots, this doesn’t exactly feel like an adult in a child’s body. Instead, the effect of an adult playing an adult playing a child creates a general sense of unease, of things not quite being right, that unsettles First Kill from its earliest scenes.
In retrospect, Orphan felt like the end of a certain language of horror cinema, so literal was its Electra drama, and the way it framed male and female gazes, as if laying bare an entire psychoanalytic vocabulary that had sustained American terror since the inception of Hollywood. That went hand in hand with a shift from an analog to digital mode of horror veracity, epitomised by Leena herself, who was corporeally present as a child, but also occupied the more virtual fantasies of childhood that animated the family that she incepted. That same affinity continues into First Kill, which doesn’t anticipate a fully digitised future so much as dwell on the analog residues still present in the future that Orphan envisaged – again, epitomised by recasting the original actress, now an adult, to play a character who, for all intents and purposes, still appears to be the same age. While the film clearly takes place during a later digital economy than Orphan then, director William Brent Bell eschews too much crispness or precision, overlaying his images with a mistiness and even blurriness that culminates with the central epiphany about Leena’s identity, in a shower soaked with steam.
Like Jaume Collet-Serra, the director of Orphan, Bell also uses snow as a way of encapsulating this digital shift. Snow glare makes its way into every space, like a concatenation of the cold light of digital recording devices, but unlike the original, this snowlight is never permitted to dominate the film’s palette. As glary as it may be, the film never quite gets light, let alone builds to the white voids of the 2009 film, but instead grows murkier as it goes on, like a snowstorm intensifying in slow motion. There’s always a fine dusting of snow in the air, a wintry granularity, that dovetails with a preponderance of fluorescent fixtures to bathe the film in a deep indigo glow, and then an ultraviolent lighting scheme that thickens the mise-en-scene further, turning light itself viscous. Against this world, Leena’s escape from Estonia plays as an escape from the constraints of digital technology. After her murder of a doctor is caught on surveillance footage, she murders the man who is is monitoring the footage, and then leaves the tape rolling without any agency behind it, like a premonition of the autonomous digital future, before circling back at the end, surveying the feed, and cutting it.
This ongoing sense of analog-digital flux means that Leena still continues to resonate and that the film remains eerie even though we know the twist from the outset. In fact, the film is arguably eerier for knowing the twist, just as rewatching Orphan with knowledge of Leena’s adulthood makes for a completely different viewing experience, as I’m sure will occur when I go back to watch it after viewing the prequel as well. Now that we’re apprised of the twist, there’s also a new camp pleasure in the continuous perception shifts, like the paintings of Leena’s adopted father, which take on a completely different appearance when he turns out the light. As an adult playing an adult who looks like a child, her uncanny presence ruptures the diegesis, producing ripples of misrecognition that unmoor both the characters and cast.
Yet the greatest achievement of First Kill is that it doesn’t simply rest on the uncanny residue of the first film, but instead comes up with two quite new propositions, both of which involve Leena’s new (or original) adopted family, the Albrights – mother Tricia, played by Julia Stiles, father Allen, played by Rossif Sutherland, and son Gunnar, played by Matthew Finlan. The Albrights also had a daughter, Esther, who went missing several years ago, and this is the role that Leena contrives to play. Whereas Orphan presented us with parents gradually discerning something “off” in their adoptive child, here we have parents gradually discerning something “off” in their birth child – parents forced to treat their apparent birth daughter, who they haven’t seen in many years, with the same unfamiliarity with which they might greet an adoptive daughter. The scenario is even uncannier in that Leena is new to the United States, and hasn’t quite perfected her performance yet, meaning she has to continually fall back upon the privileged position of childhood trauma to prevent her parents questioning her backstory.
As original as this reworking of the original film is, it functions as the mere prelude for a twist every bit as powerful as that delivered by Collet-Serra. Midway through the film, we learn that Tricia, the Albright matriarch, has been aware of Leena’s lie for some time, perhaps from the very beginning. Worse, it emerges that Gunnar, the heir to the Albright fortune, killed his little sister Esther in a fit of rage, and that Tricia helped him dispose of the body, all unbeknownst to Allen, the patriarch, who fully believes that Leena is indeed Esther. In a dark echo of the JonBenet Ramsey case, or at least one possible iteration of that case, Tricia has done everything in her power to maintain Allen’s fantasy of his son, and his broader fantasy of the family, which now extends to coaching Leena into how to conform to what Esther would have been like had she lived to her age. Rather than Leena shocking her new mother with a disclosure of adulthood, as occurred in Orphan, Tricia forces her back into girlhood: “Let’s make pink your very favourite color – let’s give them a story that they want to believe.”
This process is bolstered by the Albrights’ status as the white, wealthy Trumpian family par excellence. Tricia refuses to justify herself to Leena beyond the assertion that she matters, which she iterates in a number of different ways – sometimes by invoking the present (“This is America. People like me matter.”) and sometimes by invoking the past (“This family came over on the fucking Mayflower and built this country. We matter”). We never find out exactly what happened to Esther, nor even what was supposed to have happened, despite the ghost of a procedural investigation lingering around the fringes of the narrative in the form of Detective Donnan, played by Hiro Kanagawa, who seems to have suspected the family from the outset. Instead, all pertinent details of the crime have been covered up, subsumed back into the Albrights’ command over their local community, in the same way that the Ramseys’ wealth insulated them from regular police procedure, regardless of their actual culpability.
Within that Trumpian melting-pot, Tricia sees her role as maintaining the fantasy of the family as the inviolable property of her husband, thereby embodying a cadre of white women who supported Trump out of desperation to maintain the bloodline of their patriarchs, even if it involved matter-of-factly encouraging, managing and then sacrificing their daughters to an Electra complex. Conversely, Leena has to perform a double labour, as both Leena and Esther, as both adult and child, both daughter and disavowed other, both innocent enough to be tainted by Russian otherness, and worldly enough to become a beacon of American futurity. In other words, Leena finds herself faced with a nemesis who is able to modulate womanhood and girlhood even more insidiously than herself – Republican ideology. Her desire to present as a girl while acting as a woman can’t compete with Tricia’s compulsion to acknowledge her as a woman by treating her like a girl. Leena’s modus operandi in the original film was to plug a gap in the family, but now the maternal figure uses her to matter-of-factly manage how fractured the family was to begin with, which makes First Kill ultimately feel more like a sequel than a prequel, a missive from a later and more fortified period of conservative family values.
The most sinister implication of Tricia’s agenda is that the family actually needed Esther to disappear, in order to preserve her girlhood forever, and maintain the father-daughter relationship in perpetuity – again, the same eerie resonance that we see in the JonBenet Ramsey case, where a lifetime of beauty pageants designed to reify JonBenet’s girlhood segued into a crime that preserved her as a girl forever in the consciousness of the American public. When Leena “returns” as Esther, Tricia has to work doubly hard to infantilise and “disappear” her once again, producing a remarkably violent conclusion – the violence of mother trying to repress daughter, the Ouroboros of Trumpian white women turning on themselves, like the endlessly looping tracking-shot that constitutes the entirety of Beth de Araujo’s Soft & Quiet. By this stage, it’s hard not to support Leena, as she works harder and harder to escape the next wave of Trumpian infantilisation, the violence escalating as Allen, who has been away on a business trip, grows closer to the house, where Tricia resorts to her most drastic measures yet to ensure the right-wing fantasy of family values is waiting for him.
During these last moments, the house seems to become both more corporeal and ethereal, to totter between analog and digital worlds as the fantasies built around it reach peak precarity. In scene after scene, Leena or Tricia fall down and rise to find the space around them suddenly empty, as if voids have started to drop through these fantasmatic structures, and yet the two also affirm the materiality of the house by climbing to its highest point, as a fire rages beneath them, forcing them to reach out their hands to Allen, who arrives at the very last second, but can only save one of them. The fantasy falls apart now, as Allen lets Tricia die, and hoists up Leena, only for her false teeth to fall out, revealing her to be an adult, at which point she pushes him over the edge as well. Even Leena seems to realise that the father’s ideal of the family cannot be violated, as does Bell, who cuts between the flames as they consume the actual house, and Esther’s old doll house, the house’s fantasy of itself, buried deep within. It’s a brilliant ending, daring and campy at the same time, and capping off one of Stiles’ best roles in years – an appropriate finale to such an impressive and original prequel-sequel, and hopefully the catalyst for a full Orphan franchise, or expanded universe.
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