Evil meets its match” would have been a good tagline for this neat B-picture, a slow burn that starts off as horror before swerving into a more straightforward thriller. A prequel to surprise hit Orphan (2009) and a perverse take on the origin theme so beloved of the MCU/DC movies, this begins in Estonia where Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is an inmate at a psychiatric institute.
At first it looks like the tale is heading in the direction of Leena’s relationship with new art therapist Anna (Gwendolyn Collins). But that is quickly stymied when Leena, having orchestrated an escape through her manipulative and seductive powers, knocks off Anna as well, pausing only long enough to harness the woman’s computer to find a lookalike missing girl, the American Esther Albright, she could pretend to be. The wealthy Albrights, mum Tricia (Julia Stiles), devastated artist husband Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and spoiled brat son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) live in a huge mansion in Connecticut.
And at first again, we go down another rabbit hole, this time the question of whether Esther can maintain her disguise, coming up shy at times in the old memory department. A psychiatrist is initially a bit suspicious and there’s a cop, Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) lingering in the background. But Esther bonds with Allen over their shared interest in painting and the husband believes he has unearthed a new shining talent.
We also go down a rat-hole, so to speak, when Esther befriends a rat (an unlikely inhabitant in such a deluxe property, but there you go) whose only purpose you guess right away is to die, poisoned in one way or another. You imagine the poisoner is going to be Esther just wanting to maintain her killing skills.
Not so. The poor old rat is killed by mistake by Tricia who is, it turns out, trying to rid herself of this imposter, a lass she knows only too well cannot be her missing daughter for one very unsavoury reason which I won’t divulge but certainly took me by surprise.
So then the film switches onto a completely different tack, and one that is far more satisfying than just a deranged maniac, as in most horror pictures, going round slaughtering everyone in sight. Donnan has re-entered the frame by this point, continuing his investigations to the point of sneakily snatching Esther’s fingerprints so he can try and do a match.
So now it’s game on and Esther is out- numbered, up against a pretty dangerous mother-and-son combo, with only the dim husband as ally. And no matter what clever stunts Esther dreams up to rid herself of this infernal duo and live happily ever after with the doting father, the equally tough Julia is quietly setting her own snares.
We were already expecting trouble the moment we set eyes on Esther, who, with her baby-faced features and size, that was a given, if ever there was a monster-in-disguise it was her. But beautiful socialite Tricia is a different story and so if there’s a “secret” this time round it’s to do with Tricia’s family, the pair involved maintaining an ongoing masquerade with the unwitting father.
Esther’s survival depends not so much on killing her way out of here but on winning over the father sufficiently should that, inevitably, if her plans work out, bereft of wife and son he will turn to her for consolation.
Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is even better than she was before. Then she was a young actress playing a young maniac. Now she’s over a decade older and having to act more than a decade younger and that certainly takes some doing. But Julia Stiles (Hustlers, 2019) is the revelation, the cold-as-ice beauty, barely holding her family together after the previous tragedy, on the one hand welcoming Esther because it revitalizes her almost-dormant husband, on the other needing to exert considerable control otherwise their carefully constructed lives are going to explode. Although the surname is not new to me, the actor is, and Rossif Sutherland (The Middle Man, 2021) gives a touching performance as the grieving, brooding father finding himself, especially good in his scenes in his studio with Esther. In only his second picture Mathew Finlan (My Fake Boyfriend, 2022) isn’t given much scope as a spoilt brat son nor is Hiro Kanagawa, best known for the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.
Director William Brent Bell (The Boy, 2016) does a decent job, especially given he has to stradde the twin genres or horror and thriller with a nod in the direction of film noir. The scenes between Esther and Julia, where they realise they are adversaries, are especially well done. There are enough twists to keep the plot spiralling along and clever use of doubles to make you believe Fuhrman is a little girl.
Far from a great picture, but enough to be getting along with in the absence of a blockbuster. The hardier of the moviegoer species, people like me who pop along to their local cinema every week regardless and find something to watch, will be less picky about this kind of fare than those who get in for nothing or are sent a streamer due to their status as critics. Exhibitors have complained for over a century now that the best movies are never spread out over the year, but clustered into various time zones. Their livelihood, after all, depends on a constant string of winners. It’s a different story for cinemagoers. We just want to sit in the dark and see a film and as long as it’s reasonable enough we’re not going to complain.
In what should have been an indifferent week for moviegoing – given I had already seen Bullet Train, Nope, Top Gun: Maverick etc – I managed quite a nice triple bill on my weekly outing. This was the sandwich between the charmingly tolerable Fishermen’s Friends: One for All and documentary Girls Can’t Surf.