Tuesday, August 16, 2022


by Rob DiCristino
A bloop and a blast.

Orphan: First Kill (Dir. William Brent Bell)

Spoilers for Orphan ahead:

Let’s think for a minute. What was good about 2009’s Orphan? There was director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed some of the decade’s best genre schlock — including Run All Night and The Shallows — before being absorbed into the Disney machine with last year’s tepid Jungle Cruise. There was the radiant Vera Farmiga, of course, taking her first steps into the horror genre before cementing herself as an icon with Bates Motel and the Conjuring series. Isabelle Fuhrman was certainly captivating as the bad seed orphan Esther, but her performance largely outclassed the character, whose psychological traumas were more engaging in theory than in practice. In truth, the most interesting thing about Orphan was that its twist — that the adolescent Esther, killed at the end of the film, was actually an adult woman with a pituitary disorder that stunted her growth — opened the door for prequels that could chronicle her early misadventures while retaining Fuhrman, whose aging could be more easily masked in that context. Not a bad strategy, as strategies go.
Which brings us to Orphan: First Kill, helmed by William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, The Boy). Picking up a few years before the first film, it opens with Leena (Fuhrman and her body doubles) escaping the mysterious Saarne Institute, where she had been imprisoned after murdering her adopted family. Yes, Orphan: First Kill contradicts its title in the opening scene. I guess it sounded better than Orphan: Escaping the Saarne Institute? Anyway. Adopting the identity of missing person Esther Albright, she is “reunited” with Esther’s wealthy American family and sets immediately about seducing the husband (Rossif Sutherland as Allen), undermining the wife (Julia Stiles as Tricia), and making veiled threats of violence against their son (Matthew Finlan as Gunnar). Though she expects to be the center of the psycho-sexual drama, Leena discovers that the real Esther didn’t really go missing; she was killed by a member of her own family, whose cover-up forced them to accept this obvious imposter. From there, it’s psycho against psychos in a race to the fiery finish.
Unfortunately, that twist on the Orphan formula is the only interesting thing First Kill has to offer. Fuhrman does her best to bring a bit more texture to her signature character, but she’s mostly forced to retread the beats of the first film while ceding much of the cinematic real estate to her sinister opponent — hint: It’s the actor you’ve heard of! There’s a nice middle act compromise where the equally-guilty parties have to maintain the appearance of a happy family, but even that is abandoned before it can spool up into anything effective. Still, Orphan: First Kill’s failure to bring something new to the table doesn’t mean it won’t satisfy fans of the would-be franchise who simply want more Esther in their lives. Horror sagas have been built on shakier foundations, and as long as lore is doled-out carefully and production budgets are kept in check, there’s no reason why the Orphan series can’t find a comfortable spot in a middleweight tier, somewhere between Hellraiser and Insidious. She might not be much right now, but Esther has plenty of room to grow. Well, so to speak.

Orphan: First Kill comes to US theaters and VOD on August 19th.

Fall (Dir. Scott Mann)
I don’t like heights. I think going up high is a bad idea, and I don’t understand why anyone would risk their lives to do so. Don’t they understand what happens when a human body falls from a considerable height? Don’t they know there’s no air up there? We have all this air down here to breathe, and they’re up there not breathing it? What, the spectacular views? That’s what Google Earth is for. The thrill of conquering natural wonders? Scuba dive down to a coral reef, or something! You can’t fall out of the ocean. I guess they’ve got the same air problem there, though. And aquatic beasts. And the bends. Whatever. Look, I obviously don’t relate to Fall’s Becky (Grace Caroline Curry) and Hunter (Virginia Gardner), two thrill-seekers looking to overcome their shared grief over Dan’s (Mason Gooding) death by scaling a 2,000-foot TV tower in the middle of a desert with just a few bottles of water and a drone. It’s a stupid idea, but Hunter’s YouTube page needs the clicks, and Becky’s life needs a reset. So up they go, and — when the rusty ol’ ladder breaks — up they stay.
That’s right, folks, it’s a good old-fashioned bottle episode. One of the better ones in recent memory, in fact, as director Scott Mann (no relation, apparently) uses — opening sequence notwithstanding — impressive green screen effects to create a vibrant and terrifying vertical landscape for his heroes with a clear sense of scale and geography for his audience, no easy feat on a $3 million budget. We feel the girls’ genuine thrill when they reach the top — though those of us in the audience with any sense will also feel our hearts in our throats as they lazily dangle from the platform to get the right selfie angle — and share their helpless claustrophobia once they realize they’re trapped. One sequence finds Becky waking up from a nightmare and staring out into the infinite blackness, a simple and effective image that will haunt my own dreams for nights to come. It’s creative flourishes like these that distract from Fall’s prosaic dialogue and cheap character drama, keeping our attention on tactile problem solving that, at times, we can almost feel in our bones.
Fall strays from that grounded (no pun intended) approach in its final sequences, but — like the aforementioned The Shallows — its patient and efficient execution in the first hour more than earns it the right to cut loose a bit and squeeze out every last bit of vertigo-inducing action before sending us home. Because even while stretching credulity, that action is behavioral and reflects the best decisions the characters can make in the moment, including one truly outlandish move that had me cheering with perverse glee. And sure, we waste the great Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a subplot that goes nowhere and create a pointless and mildly sexist rift between our heroes for the sake of fleeting tension, but these are quibbles compared to everything that Mann and his team do right. In a summer that asked us to draw maps of multiverses and accept Miles Teller as a competent badass, Fall is the best kind of low-stakes palate cleanser, a B-movie built for 4DX. Best of all, it promotes life’s most important lesson: Stop going so high up in the air, you dimwitted jags.

Fall is in US theaters now.

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