Directed by Nirpal Bhogal
A while ago, when I still lived in London, I got invited to the set of a movie called Thea that was being shot in my local area. It promised to be a Blighty-based twist on the recent run of domestic horror movies, taking the subgenre to a part of the big smoke normally off the tourist trail. It was a cool visit, where among other people I met the very enthusiastic director, Nirpal Bhogal, and leading lady Antonia Thomas who I’d seen on Misfits. Both were great chat (particularly Thomas, who it turned out hates horror) and they made it sound like a low-budget flick with very big ambitions. Aside from the difficulty of working with kids, and how tough it is keeping the spirits up for take after take, it taught me not to be too cynical of cinema. Every production will be different, though something they’ll have in common is the labour and effort that goes into getting it done. Needless to say, I left feeling bad for all the smug, sarcastic, snarkier-than-thou reviews I’d done in the past.
Whilst there I also watched an intriguing scene, set in a kitchen, get shot and met the man in the monster suit. It was only the second time I’d gone behind the scenes, so was rather exciting, and I was looking forward to watching the finished film. But over time I heard no more about it from the publicity team, and Thea wasn’t coming up in searches, so I assumed it didn’t have a UK release. Either that or it had been caught in some sort of distribution Hell. Eventually, I forgot all about it and stopped looking online for more information. However, recently I was going through my recommendations on Amazon Prime when I saw one I’d never heard of, called FirstBorn. It had a very familiar concept and was temporarily going for less than a quid to rent. Turns out it actually came out three years ago. And it was alright!
Not that the concept is especially unique, so don’t ask why that was the giveaway. In short, the lives of a young couple get turned upside down when their firstborn child seems to be a magnet for evil supernatural forces. These can only be kept at bay by a set of very specific rituals, that keep her safe. Luckily, grandfather Alistair (Hyde) has a lot of experience with the occult. Cut to six years later, and it’s all just another routine for them and Thea (Petrie), as banal as bedtime or brushing their teeth. There are some really neat concepts here, such as the parents painting round the door once a week and Thea not being able to have dolls with faces on them. However, when she gets a little older these works less, and she starts to attract more and more of these diabolical entities. Thus it becomes time to send her to the powerful Elizabeth (Davies): a mystical elderly spiritualist with the same gift/ curse.
Something I liked about FirstBorn is its refreshingly unsentimental characterisation. Charlie isn’t played as the perfect mum: she drinks while pregnant, smokes with her kid around and swears when they make too much noise. James is more enthusiastic at first, though he’s also way less actively involved in raising their daughter. Though they change with time, they’re nonetheless far from the usual onscreen parents whose personality starts and ends at doing anything for their family. Watching them reluctantly come to terms with the challenges of their new roles is rewarding, and provides dramatic stakes. The first act is the film at its best and potentially stands as an exaggerated parallel to parents learning to deal with their kid’s developmental disorder. Whether this was intended or not, I don’t know. Yet the key point of raising it is that the pair function as more than just another metaphorical perfect family unit under threat. All cast members are very good too and get to the heart of their characters and their conflicts. Even if Thea’s outsiderdom at school is annoyingly underexplored, limiting her portrayal to that of a brave little kid looking out for her folks.
The more conventional horror elements are sadly a lot less accomplished. Needlessly fast editing and low lighting often make the scare scenes often feel intangible. Set-pieces, therefore, rely more on their abrupt musical cues, and disorientation, than anything that’s actually happening onscreen. This is just about ok at first, as sometimes less is more and the aggressive/ punky atmosphere gives FirstBorn some personality. But this means the intensity is lost a little as the key beats become very samey and vague. Which gets particularly problematic towards the end when a potentially intense face-off becomes messy and incoherent. It’s frustrating, as I’ve seen one of the monster suits in real life and wish Bhogal had more confidence in it given what little we see is effective. Moreover, the film also fails to escalate the tension convincingly throughout a second act slump, where the silly scenes with Elizabeth detract from the emotional realism established before. It’s a change every bit as abrupt as when the phrase “astral projection” is first uttered in Insidious. And for me, it is similarly unsuccessful. It all leads to an extremely rushed third act in which character motivations get muddled. It means by the end we still neither know much about nor particularly fear, the forces at work.
Yet I still felt emotional when the credits rolled. Even if it was mostly because I remembered being there when its final form was still a “what if”. As a life long horror fan, I’d always wanted to go behind the curtain and see how its made. And though this wasn’t my first time (that was a movie named Writers Retreat that’s never been released here), it was the most memorable. I felt literal goose bumps when I saw the scene I witnessed getting recorded play out during the second half and thought about how I was mere meters away. I shared the moment that’d been captured. As per photography, film is all about immortalising a particular moment in space and time. Of course, this isn’t just about footage – but also the impact finished movies have on their audience. As irritating as it can be in others, particularly when people use it as a personality trait, nostalgia’s a powerful thing. I bet all of us attach significant things, like people and places, to the films we watch, so each can be fuel for our mental time machines. Hence, quality aside, maybe a big part of why we take the ones we do with us is the times in our life they can take us back to. And though FirstBorn didn’t have a huge impact on me as a piece of art, as part of my story as a horror fan it sure as heck did. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to revisit it. And to the cast and crew, if you’re reading, thanks for the memories.