9.22.2022

Pearl (2022)

DIRECTED BY

Ti West


STARRING

Mia Goth - Pearl

David Corenswet - The Projectionist

Tandi Wright - Ruth

Matthew Sunderland - Pearl’s Father

Emma Jenkins-Purro - Mitzy

Alistair Sewell - Howard


Genre - Horror/Thriller/Drama


Running Time - 102 Minutes



PLOT

Trapped on her family’s isolated farm, Pearl must tend to her ailing father under the bitter and overbearing watch of her devout mother. Lusting for a glamorous life like she’s seen in the movies, Pearl’s ambitions, temptations, and repressions all collide, in the stunning, technicolor-inspired origin story of X’s iconic villain.


REVIEW


Ti West impressed many earlier in the year with his return to horror with X, an obvious homage to 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and 1977’s EATEN ALIVE with a more sexually liberated and repressed twist. Considering all the good horror we’ve gotten so far in 2022, X still remains the standout because it came out of nowhere and pushed a lot of the right buttons for audiences to remember it and to continue going back to it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on many Top 10 Horror Lists for 2022.


The real surprise came after the end credits of X, where a trailer for a prequel called PEARL was revealed with X star, Mia Goth. Filmed secretly at the same time as X, Ti West made PEARL as a way to expand the X universe by explaining Pearl’s justifications for her strange behavior in X, while showcasing Mia Goth’s talents in a bigger role. PEARL was an automatic must watch in my personal opinion, considering how much I enjoyed X. Learning more about any of those characters grabbed my attention right away and I really looked forward to this prequel. 


Those expecting a repeat of X will probably be disappointed by PEARL. This prequel is pretty much the antithesis of what Ti West did before, making PEARL its own thing while connecting it to X. In fact, I think the existence of PEARL actually makes X a better film, given that we can now understand the villains’ motivations in that film in a more sympathetic light, although their actions were still horrific. PEARL is not a pointless film just to create a movie universe, but a window to the character of Pearl’s soul to provide the audience answers to many questions asked in the previous film. I think it was a smart storytelling and business move that will increase the rewatchability of X.


Unlike the Tobe Hooper inspirations of X, PEARL is Ti West’s demented vision of THE WIZARD OF OZ. And by that, I mean Dororthy Gale didn’t wish for somewhere over the rainbow, losing her mind being stuck in Kansas and failing at any chance of going from a black and white world to a colored one. Pearl wants to be a movie star, feeling she has the talent to make it to the big time. Unfortunately, she’s stuck being an army wife on her parents’ farm, having to take care of her invalid father with her strict mother. It doesn’t help when there’s a pandemic going on, making Pearl’s mother so cautious and paranoid that her demand for control pushes Pearl to the edge.



PEARL
is a character study on a young woman trying to break the chains that life has contained her in, forcing her to do malicious things to escape reality. While Pearl does bad things to get her way, her situation helps us understand why she behaves the way she does and why she does the things she does. Her reality and her dreams for a better life clash in every way, making her crack mentally and emotionally until it’s too late for everyone involved. Her mother always berates Pearl for having dreams, feeling Pearl is ungrateful for what she has provided for her - even though Pearl catches her mother crying in her sleep, showing that the two are very much alike emotionally. Pearl’s father is a burden to his illness, making her mother bitter and Pearl making attempts to end his life as a way to move on. Even when Pearl’s in-laws want to help the family out with food and other goodies, her mother is too proud to take charity as well as being afraid of whatever germs the in-laws may have. It’s a messed up situation for everyone involved, which makes you realize this won’t end well at all.


It doesn’t get any better when Pearl goes to a movie theater [using her mother’s money, which isn’t much] and meets the projectionist of the theater. He’s charming, handsome and tells her all the things Pearl wants to hear. The Projectionist builds upon Pearl’s dreams and aspirations for a better life by escaping her farm by promising her trips to Europe and making her believe she can become a big star anywhere in the world. Also being sexually repressed due to her husband fighting in World War I and not knowing whether he’s dead or alive, Pearl sleeps with the Projectionist, making her clingy due to finally feeling wanted again. When the Projectionist is turned off by some of her behavior, Pearl lashes out and creates more trouble for herself. Not only is Pearl’s story a sad one, but it also explains her behavior in X and creates a level of sympathy one didn’t have for the character before. 


If I did have any issues in the narrative, I do wish more was done with the pandemic subplot. Considering we’re still dealing with one now, it would have been interesting to see characters dealing with the subject more. Also, the tone can be all over the place. For every serious moment, it’s sometimes undermined by comedy. I get why that’s done because the humorous aspects create a bit of relief from the tension for the audience. But sometimes it gets to a point where you want to laugh at PEARL rather than laugh with PEARL. The balance between horror and comedy is always a slippery slope and I do think Ti West manages to successfully handle it for most of the film. But if a serious, horrific moment plays out that ends with some sort of punchline that takes away all the emotion from that moment, how am I supposed to really feel about what I just saw? 


I respect the hell out of Ti West for not only filming two films back-to-back in secret, but making both of them so much different from the other. PEARL is a much livelier movie than X in terms of its visual presentation. Unlike the gritty and grindhouse look of X, PEARL is a homage to Technicolor movies with its saturated colors and beautiful landscapes. I loved that the interiors of Pearl’s home looked more muted than all the exteriors, really capturing Pearl’s emotional state and her outlook on her reality compared to her potential escape.



West also showcases various homages to other films in PEARL. I already mentioned THE WIZARD OF OZ, as the film mostly takes place on a farm. She also rides a bicycle into town like Dorothy would. Pearl even encounters a scarecrow in a very memorable scene that will definitely become a discussion point. The tense dinner scenes throughout the film remind me of 1976’s CARRIE, as Pearl and her mother argue over what’s best for Pearl, with Pearl wanting to try out for a dance trope so she can have a better life while her mother forbids it. There’s thunder and lightning and even a physical confrontation between the two that reminds me of that Last Supper scene in the film. There’s also a slow motion and split screen scene later in the film that’s pure Brian de Palma. And as Pearl becomes more murderous, she envokes Joan Crawford in 1964’s STRAIT-JACKET. And surprisingly, this all works and feels cohesive, adding depth to Pearl’s character and the world she lives in.


The cast is also wonderful. Tandi Wright is great as the overbearing and strict mother that conflicts with Pearl’s more free-spirited persona. Matthew Sunderland uses his facial expressions in effective ways as Pearl’s father. David Corenswet is suave and smooth as The Projectionist, as Corenswet definitely looks like an actor who would have been a huge star in Old Hollywood. Emma Jenkins-Purro is endearing and perky as Southern Belle Mitzy. 


But PEARL belongs entirely to Mia Goth, who also co-wrote the film with Ti West to bring the character to life and explain her behavior in X. Goth captures your attention throughout. You root for her when she portrays Pearl chasing her dreams. You feel bad for her when she grows frustrated when those around her refuse to understand her. And you get a demented kick out of Goth when she takes Pearl to that devious level as she’s taking out anyone who stands in way of her dreams. Goth becomes more riveting as the film nears the end, where Goth just vents in a six-minute monologue. Then there’s the closing shot where Pearl just forces a smile at the camera during the end credits, losing the strength to keep it up and showing how sad and miserable she is behind her happy demeanor. If PEARL was any other genre but horror, I could easily see Goth being noticed for an Academy Award. She’s amazing in the film.


THE FINAL HOWL


Whether the film needed to be made or not, Ti West’s PEARL is another win for the writer-director in 2022. While X is the more exciting feature and will probably please more mainstream audiences with its direct and familiar approach, PEARL helps compliment X by developing an interesting backstory for that film’s main villain. Mia Goth’s performance is top notch, embodying the character’s flaws and quirks perfectly, making us root for her and feel sorry for her despite her character’s malevolent and twisted behavior. Ti West has created a twisted version of THE WIZARD OF OZ where Dororthy never gets to see that somewhere over the rainbow, growing more disturbed and delusional the longer she stays on that farm. The beautiful Technicolor homage, slo-mo and split screen editing that invokes Brian de Palma, and that telling final close-up on Goth’s face shows a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing in creating this mini-universe. While I wish some narrative beats were stronger or went deeper than they did, as I also wish the tone would have stayed a bit more consistent at times, PEARL is a worthy prequel that fans of West and X should definitely check out. Hopefully West and Goth can go 3-for-3 with MAXXXINE in 2023.



SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4





9.19.2022

House of Usher (1960)

DIRECTED BY

Roger Corman


STARRING

Vincent Price - Roderick Usher

Mark Damon - Philip Winthrop

Myrna Fahey - Madeline Usher

Harry Ellerbe - Bristol


Genre - Horror/Drama


Running Time - 79 Minutes



PLOT

After a long journey, Philip arrives at the Usher mansion seeking his loved one, Madeline. Upon arriving, however, he discovers that Madeline and her brother Roderick Usher have been afflicted with a mysterious malady: Roderick’s senses have become painfully acute, while Madeline has become catatonic. That evening, Roderick tells his guest of an old Usher family curse: any time there has been more than one Usher child, all of the siblings have gone insane and died horrible deaths. As the days wear on, the effects of the curse reach their terrifying climax.


REVIEW


You can’t do the Halloween season without Vincent Price, which is why I decided to watch something of his that I hadn’t seen in a long while. 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER was the first of Roger Corman’s films starring Vincent Price based on literature by Edgar Allan Poe. A prolific B-movie producer prior to this, HOUSE OF USHER is really the start of Corman receiving tons of accolades and respect as a filmmaker, as he treats the source material seriously and pretty faithfully.


Corman was inspired by Hammer Films’ success with their CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA films, as well as Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY of the same year. Wanting to come near to that quality, Corman begged American International Pictures for a sizable budget and the ability to film in color, as all previously produced films were in black and white. While AIP denied this request at first since they were in the monster business, Corman had to convince the studio that the house where the story takes place was the villain of the story. Seeing that Richard Matheson would co-write the story and Vincent Price [THE horror star at the time] would be attached, AIP took a gamble that would eventually pay off for everyone involved.


Adapting Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, one of the author’s most famous stories, would be quite the task for Corman and Matheson. As many of Poe’s readers know, a lot of Poe’s works are in first person and lack any sort of backstory, focused on the present and how the narrator feels within that time frame. Other adaptations were written for stage and film prior to Corman’s project, but I feel the 1960 film is its strongest adaptation that fleshes out Poe’s work in the visual way that was intended. The narrator of the story is finally given a name [Philip Winthrop]. Roderick and Madeline Usher are now siblings instead of lovers. And since the Poe story has no real internal conflict, Matheson creates a sort of struggle between the two men over Madeline. Winthrop is now Madeline’s fiancee, who wants to take Madeline out of this mansion that’s apparently cursed to anyone named Usher. Roderick wants to get rid of Winthrop to keep Madeline in the home to protect her as long as possible, creating a weird incestuous relationship between the siblings that’s strongly implied. The rest of Poe’s story plays out as written, with the house being the antagonist that will destroy anyone connected to the Usher bloodline due to past crimes that created some sort of sentient evil as punishment for future descendants. It’s a pretty simple story that is greatly helped by the soap opera between the three main characters, due to Matheson fleshing them out and creating a more thrilling scenario that will still lead to the same unhappy ending for everyone involved.



Corman directs the film really well, as the stage-like set design creates an intimate feel for HOUSE OF USHER to its benefit. The look of the film and the way it’s filmed does resemble that of a Hammer film, obviously showing Corman’s inspiration on this Poe adaptation. Corman creates a gloomy mood throughout the film, simmering until the movie reaches its thrilling final act where the house begins to physically get revenge on the characters as it crumbles down and fire engulfs the entire scene. Special mention must go to cinematographer Floyd Crosby for making the sets look grander and richer than they probably were. And to production designer Daniel Haller for capturing the look of the Usher House, with its gothic and Victorian creepiness surrounded by dead looking trees and fog. It’s a great looking flick for 1960’s horror. Money well spent.


The cast is fine as well. Mark Damon comes across as a bit bland and dry at times as Winthrop, although his portrayal of annoyance at times does give the actor a bit of a personality that’s much needed. Myrna Fahey is pretty stoic most of the time as well, although she gets to have more fun during the film’s final moments in an energetic turn in her character of Madeline.


But seriously, HOUSE OF USHER belongs to one man and one man only - Vincent Price. Better known for his campy and melodramatic performances, Price does a 180 and portrays a more subtle and nuanced performance as Roderick. Instead of hamming it up to entertain the audience, Price allows himself to brood within his role, giving a more tortured and somewhat obsessive performance that makes you question his character. Is Roderick wanting to get rid of Winthrop to protect him from Madeline’s curse within the house? Is Roderick trying to eliminate the competition because he’s in love with his own sister? Is it both? We’re never really sure because Price plays it close to the vest. And thankfully Price is onscreen for much of the film’s runtime because his charisma overshadows the rest of the cast and carries the film to its success. It’s no surprise he would appear in more of these Poe adaptations because he’s the best part about them. The man is an icon for a reason.


THE FINAL HOWL


1960’s HOUSE OF USHER doesn’t reinvent the wheel, even for its time. But it’s still a great Edgar Allan Poe adaptation that proves Roger Corman’s strength as a horror filmmaker and businessman, as well as a memorable and charismatic performance by horror icon Vincent Price in one of his finest roles. The changes made to the adaptation’s narrative strengthen the story, adding in much needed internal conflict that was missing in Poe’s original work. Corman’s inspired direction to make an American horror film to resemble a Hammer Film works to the film’s favor, as the film carries a mood of dread from beginning to end through its beautifully Gothic set locations. As for the cast, Price overshadows everyone else on screen with him, even though the other actors are decent, if not a bit dry and bland compared to the horror icon. Still, HOUSE OF USHER is a recommended watch during the Halloween season - as Corman, Price and Poe make for a wonderful combination this time of year.



SCORE

3 Howls Outta 4

(8 out of 10)



9.11.2022

Barbarian (2022)

DIRECTED BY

Zach Cregger


STARRING

Georgina Campbell - Tess

Bill Skarsgard - Keith

Justin Long - AJ

Richard Brake - Frank


Genre: Horror/Thriller


Running Time: 102 Minutes



PLOT

In town for a job interview, a young woman arrives at her Airbnb late at night only to find that it has been mistakenly double-booked and a strange man is already staying there. Against her better judgment, she decides to stay the night anyway, but soon discovers that there is much more to be afraid of in the house than the other house guest.


REVIEW


2022’s BARBARIAN is a film I barely knew anything about before seeing it in theaters opening day. I may have watched a TV spot once or twice, but didn’t really pay attention besides learning that both Bill Skarsgard and Justin Long were in it. To my surprise, not only did I learn this film was written and directed by Zach Cregger [of The Whitest Kids ‘U Know and MISS MARCH fame], but BARBARIAN had a strong word-of-mouth. So considering we’re in the middle of 61 Days of Halloween, I went to a theater and gave the film a shot. And I’m glad I did because this film is definitely a horror surprise for 2022.


The less you know about BARBARIAN, the better. The narrative is inspired by other films, like THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS for example. So you expect certain things to happen because the story feels familiar at the start. But then it turns on the tropes we’re accustomed to, taking the audience through twists no one could see coming. Then we learn the film is really three different stories/perspectives in one, all coming together quite nicely in the last twenty minutes. While I think the last part of the film was kind of lame and derivative, like no one really knew how to end the film in a way that matched the cleverness of everything prior to it, the rest of BARBARIAN is solid and a lot of fun. Plus, the film does have commentaries on things in our modern society that I wish were explored more, especially in the last half of the movie. The film takes place in a desolate town in Detroit with a minority lead actress, if that tells you what kind of topics are brought up. But other than that, there’s some twisted and disturbing stuff going on in this film at times, which makes going in blind a fun ride.



The direction by Cregger really surprised me, considering he’s not really known for horror. But certain visual effects are strikingly effective and creepy. And the way Cregger paces the film and introduces characters help build atmosphere and mood throughout. During the first half of the film, my anxiety was going up at times because there was so much tension on screen, I was just waiting for something major to happen with the characters on screen. There are also moments of humor that actually work, plus some of the jump scares did get me because of the tension building to them. The uses of light versus shadow are done really well and the use of the locations are visualized well to increase the mystery of what’s really going on. Like I mentioned, I thought the last part of the film felt derivative and the direction didn’t really help there. But overall, I want to see Cregger direct more horror films because he’s pretty damn good at it.


The actors are all solid. Georgina Campbell is great as the well-meaning and intelligent Tess, making the audience want to know more about her as the film rolls on. Bill Skarsgard is an inspired casting choice as Keith, considering his iconic role as Pennywise in the recent IT movies. He’s so good playing a creepy villain, it makes you wonder if he’s about to do the same in BARBARIAN. He’s great in his role. Justin Long also brings comic relief as cocky actor AJ, a guy dealing with things that make him less sympathetic as we know more about him. And Richard Brake plays another creepy serial killer type, doing it well as always.


THE FINAL HOWL


BARBARIAN
is quite a pleasant surprise, considering I barely knew anything about this horror film prior to taking a chance on it this weekend due to word-of-mouth. Using three different perspectives to tell a single straightforward story, the film takes you for a ride as it builds tension and suspense with the use of twists and turns that will change your expectations of certain horror tropes being followed. Director Zach Cregger proves that he’s a very good horror director, focusing on mood and atmosphere to raise the tension and suspense level of his movie. The actors, especially Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard and Justin Long, all provide solid performances. I do think the last portion of the film fell flat and got a bit too campy. Plus, the use of social commentaries on gender and minorities in a city like Detroit are interesting, but I wish more was done with it. But overall, BARBARIAN is a film worth seeing if you’re in the mood to watch something new during this Halloween season. The less you know about it, the better.



SCORE

3 Howls Outta 4

(8 out of 10)




9.09.2022

Eyes Without a Face [Les yeux sans visage] (1960)

DIRECTED BY

Georges Franju 


STARRING

Pierre Brasseur - Doctor Génessier

Edith Scob - Christiane Génessier

Alida Valli - Louise

Francois Guerin - Jacques Vernon

Juliette Mayniel - Edna Grüber

Alexandre Rignault - Inspector Parot

Beatrice Altariba - Paulette Mérodon


Genre - Thriller/Horror/Drama


Running Time - 84 Minutes



PLOT

Dr. Génessier is riddled with guilt after an accident that he caused disfigures the face of his daughter, the once beautiful Christiane, who outsiders believe is dead. Dr. Génessier, along with accomplice and laboratory assistant Louise, kidnaps young women and brings them to the Génessier mansion. After rendering his victims unconscious, Dr. Génessier removes their faces and attempts to graft them onto Christiane’s.


REVIEW


A classic piece of French horror, 1960’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE is not usually spoken of in the same breath as other films of the time, such as PSYCHO, DIABOLIQUE or even PEEPING TOM. But the film has inspired just as many films as the previously mentioned films, including a badass Billy Idol song of the same name in the 1980s. You also wouldn’t have had 1997’s FACE/OFF, as well as Jess Franco’s THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, which makes EYES WITHOUT A FACE essential horror watching.


Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, EYES WITHOUT A FACE focuses on Dr. Génessier who is guilt ridden over an accident that has disfigured his daughter’s face terribly. Christiane, who had a whole life including a fiancee, is considered dead and kept hidden inside of her father’s mansion until a successful face transplant can be done. Unfortunately, Génessier’s idea is an unproven and experimental one, meaning the only way he can figure it out properly is by kidnapping women [with the help of his assistant Louise] who look like his daughter, drug them, and then peel their faces off and graft them onto Christiane, hoping the skin doesn’t rot on his daughter’s face. These acts, unfortunately, gain the attention of the local police who believe they have a serial killer on their hands. EYES WITHOUT A FACE wears many different hats. It’s a body horror film before that really became a thing. It’s a police procedural. It’s also a family drama and haunted house story. 


The real tragedy comes from the facial transplants, as it affects many people involved in the process. The most obvious ones are the victims, who are charmed by Louise before getting drugged by her and having their faces surgically removed in a grotesque way. Dr. Génessier doesn’t care about these women, bandaging their skinless faces and allowing them to wake up to realize what has happened to them. Judging by the narrative, these victims are either murdered or end up killing themselves out of fear and emotional pain.



Génessier is both a villain and a victim because his guilt over what has happened to Christiane has turned him from a father who wants to help his daughter look beautiful again, to a man who who sees that a successful facial graft will make him the most successful surgeon in the world, meaning big bucks. He’s too obsessed with greed and pride to realize that his daughter is suffering no matter what. The experiments on her are taking their toll mentally and emotionally. She’s convinced that faking her death is best since she’s not beautiful anymore, forcing her to move around her mansion and the exteriors as some sort of ghost who is trying to release herself out of Limbo. And even if the graft is successful, how does she explain to her fiancee and her friends that she looks like one of the girls who was found dead without getting herself and her father in trouble? How could she have a normal life wearing a dead woman’s face? Each one of the characters long for something, which goes awry once all this longing intersects with all the others.


Having not watched EYES WITHOUT A FACE in a while, I forgot how gruesome the facial surgery and transplant was. For a film from 1960, this must have horrified audiences to see this type of body horror play out on screens. Director Georges Franju really takes his time with the scene, letting us see exactly what’s playing out before transitioning into another scene as the skin is being peeled off of the victim’s face. It’s a great special effect for its time and shows what an influence this film has had on later filmmakers, such as David Cronenberg and Stuart Gordon. 



Speaking of Franju, he does an impeccable job creating a thick layer of mood and atmosphere in this film. Nothing in this film feels hopeful or cheerful. There’s always a feeling of dread and bleakness surrounding the characters and the location they’re in. Eugen Shuftan's fantastic cinematography captures a beautiful, clean and haunting picture that you’re just captivated looking at. Even the film’s “hopeful” ending seems almost depressing, considering a happy conclusion to a certain character’s story doesn’t seem as likely. I also find it interesting that while the police procedural builds tension and suspense as the film nears its end, both filmmakers are more focused on the macabre experiments and Christiane’s lurking throughout her home as some uneasy spirit trying to find a way out. The direction is also complimented by the musical score, which sounds like it could be from a carnival at times, adding to the disturbing nature of the film’s narrative.


The actors all play their parts wonderfully. But the two standouts are Pierre Brasseur as Doctor Génessier and Edith Scob as Christiane Génessier. Brasseur plays his Doctor as stoic and cold to everyone. Even when his character is trying to show affection to Louise and Christiane, it still comes off as icy, making one unsure what his true feelings and intentions are. I also love his acting when things start falling apart for his character, as he keeps it cool on the surface but you know the dam is ready to burst internally. Scob doesn’t get a lot of dialogue or even a whole lot to do compared to other actors. But she has an alluring presence about her whenever she appears on screen, especially through her body language and her big expressive eyes. You can see the pain, confusion and torment in her character, making her captivating to watch.


THE FINAL HOWL


A film probably ahead of its time, EYES WITHOUT A FACE is a French horror classic due to its subtlety and its poetic narrative that hits on greed, vanity, and the longing need to feel seen and respected despite the consequences that’ll follow. The film doesn’t get mentioned a whole lot in modern horror circles, despite the influence it has left on slasher films [the main character hidden under a blank white mask], body horror films [the graphic face transplant scene that probably scarred many audiences back in 1960] and even a hit song for Billy Idol. Director Georges Franju and cinematographer Eugen Shuftan capture a mood and atmosphere that captures a feeling of dread and unhappiness throughout, building tension and suspense as the characters get too deep in their selfish crimes, leaving only victims [themselves included] in their wake. The actors are all wonderful, but Pierre Brasseur as the stoic and cold Doctor Génessier and Edith Scob as his haunting and tragic daughter Christiane stand out and carry this masterpiece. In particular Scob, who doesn’t say or do much but is such a haunting presence through her body language, that you’re just captivated by her every time she appears. EYES WITHOUT A FACE is a hauntingly beautiful movie that will stay with you long after it’s over.



SCORE

3.5 Howls Outta 4







8.29.2022

Orphan: First Kill (2022)

DIRECTED BY
William Brent Bell

STARRING
Isabelle Fuhrman - Esther Albright / Leena Klammer 
Julia Stiles - Tricia Albright
Rossif Sutherland - Allen Albright
Hiro Kanagawa - Inspector Donnan
Matthew Finlan - Gunnar Albright
Samantha Walkes - Dr. Segar

Genre - Horror/Thriller

Running Time - 99 Minutes


PLOT
After escaping from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Leena Klammer travels to America by impersonating Esther, the missing daughter of a wealthy family. But when her mask starts to slip, she is put against a mother who will protect her family from the murderous “child” at any cost.

REVIEW

Considering ORPHAN was released in theaters back in 2009, I was surprised that not only a new ORPHAN film was in production, but that it would also be a prequel with the same young actress now 13 years older. While I was curious enough to want to see what eventually would become ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, I also kept asking myself if a prequel to ORPHAN was even necessary. ORPHAN isn’t a horror film that a whole lot of people were talking about until the new film, even if it did do well enough at the box office. And considering how that film ended, it was obvious that the movie wasn’t meant to create a franchise for future installments. 

But then early reviews came out and the movie was being praised for some clever things within the narrative, while keeping expectations low to make it known that it wasn’t as good as the first film. Those reviews got me a bit more excited for the project, especially when it was decided to do a day-and-date release with Paramount Plus. While movies going straight to streaming used to be seen as a bad thing, there have been some good films that were exclusive to streaming platforms, making me hopeful that ORPHAN: FIRST KILL would join that group. So yes, this prequel is nowhere as good as the 2009 film. But considering the lengths the filmmakers went to in order to make this feel like a prequel, considering the main actress is now 13 years old playing an even younger version of herself, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL has no right being as good as it is.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is one of those movies that’s hard to review, especially in terms of its narrative, due to a major twist midway though the film. Like the first film, the twist really changes how the film is presented. Before the twist, this prequel is pretty standard in what one would expect narratively. You see villainous Leena in a mental institution, causing a whole lot of trouble. Through stupidity by some of the supporting characters, she escapes and takes the identity of a little girl since that’s basically her gimmick.

Here, we learn where the Esther persona from the first film comes from. Apparently, Esther was a missing child who resembles Leena, making sure to get attention from the family who is looking for her in order to live a new life outside of the institution. While the family does seem happy to have her, some grow suspicious when Leena can’t remember certain things or people, or just behaves in a way that the real Esther wouldn’t previously. At this point, you’re just waiting for Leena to screw things up to a point where she has to defend herself and hurt this family she manipulated herself into, especially considering a local detective is trying to find clues as to how Esther was suddenly found so easily and her strange behavior to everyone around her.


It’s pretty common storytelling for a prequel like this. That is, until the twist midway through the movie that changes everything about ORPHAN: FIRST KILL. I usually see twists coming a mile away in these types of films, but this one threw me for a loop when it presented itself. While the first half was pretty pedestrian, the second half is where the film really takes off and gives itself a reason for existing to begin with. The drama increases. The tension and atmosphere get thicker. With this new information, you’re just waiting for the dam to burst. It’s done so well and the change in narrative is so bonkers, that you actually start to feel sympathy for a character who, before, wouldn’t or shouldn’t get any. It changes the complete dynamic of this sequel and I lived for it every second. While the conclusion is very predictable considering this is a prequel, the ride getting there is more fun than it has any right to be.

The direction by William Brent Bell isn’t as good or as dynamic as Jaume Collet-Serra’s from the original film. Bell’s vision isn’t as stylish, or as thrilling as Collet-Serra’s work on ORPHAN. The use of CGI and body doubles to de-age Isabelle Fuhrman mostly works, especially since the film is filtered and lit in a certain way to soften the CGI work here. There’s nothing really visually inventive about Bell’s work here, but he maintains a nice pace and lets the twists in the film’s narrative drive the film and set the different tones that actually benefit each act of ORPHAN: FIRST KILL. Is the film a horror movie? A B-movie? A comedy? Yes, it is. And it oddly works.

The actors are good, in particular both Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles in their respective roles. Despite being over a decade older, Fuhrman still captures the evil and manipulative essence of Esther as if she never left. Julia Stiles is probably even better, playing a distressed and complicated mother who is suspicious of Esther. While Fuhrman has a more restrained performance, Stiles really lets it all out and manages to have some of the best moments in the film. I thought the two actresses played really well against each other. Rossif Sutherland is pretty much a repeat of the father character in ORPHAN but less interesting, unfortunately. Matthew Finlan is more interesting as the teenage son, Gunnar. His layers peel off as the film runs on, giving Finlan some nice beats to play with. Not a bad cast, but Fuhrman and Stiles carry this film to levels far more entertaining than I was expecting.

THE FINAL HOWL

After 13 years since the first film’s release, I was not expecting ORPHAN: FIRST KILL to be as good and as fun as it is. While this prequel starts out pretty pedestrian, the plot twist midway into the film changes the narrative completely, taking the audience on a tense filled and insane ride to its predictable ending. The twist turns a pretty standard horror film into B-movie gold that doesn’t fail to be entertaining. While the direction by William Brent Bell isn’t anything to talk about, despite doing what it needs to do visually, the use of de-aging CGI and body doubles for the Esther character are used well for the most part. And actresses Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles carry the film from beginning to end, giving multi-layered performances that get pretty interesting as the film rolls on. I’m really surprised how much I enjoyed ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, as this prequel has no right being as entertaining as it is. I wouldn’t be opposed to a future installment if this movie is successful enough.


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4
(7 out of 10)


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