It’s probably safe to say that Charlie’s pregnancy wasn’t planned; out on the town doing shots with the gang, she finishes the night throwing up in an alleyway before confessing to her boyfriend that they’re expecting a new arrival. The support of James is important to Charlie as the pregnancy is not without difficulty, the scratches and bruises on her body, the strange habit lightbulbs have of exploding around her.
The name Thea is chosen, meaning goddess, but Charlie has another confession; against James’ wishes she has contacted his father Alistair, whom he had cut out of his life entirely, saying he does not wish the man anywhere near the baby, arguing that “He’ll try to use her in a ritual or something,” not realising how soon his father’s knowledge will be called upon.
As Thea grows it becomes apparent that turning their backs on the past in hopes they would be spared was not enough and that their baby daughter is “a magnet for the supernatural,” already marked by a powerful dark entity, unpredictable and terrifyingly violent, and eventually they consent to let Alistair visit to try to help them.
Daily rituals follow to cleanse the house, to create a barrier, and in time Thea learns to perform them herself, but there are rules she must obey, rules which are difficult for a growing girl going to school and living a normal life. Despite Alistair’s warning that anything with a face or eyes offers a doorway into our world and must be removed from the house, Thea wants to play like her friends and cannot help but try to sneak a doll into the house.
The demonic pregnancy and possessed child are not new concepts in horror cinema, most famously having been done (twice, now) in Rosemary’s Baby and more recently in the deplorable Devil’s Due, and the setup of FirstBorn is not promising, a grey, subdued film set in the estates of central London, low budget and low ambition but with confidence in what can be done with those resources it is professionally achieved and well-acted across the board.
Premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the second feature from director Nirpal Bhogal was co-written with Sean Hogan, and he creates atmosphere from very little and has assembled a fine cast headed by Misfits’ Antonia Thomas as the fierce and determined Charlie and Poldark’s Luke Norris as James, in well over his head but devoted to his family.
Bringing weight and experience are The Strain’s Jonathan Hyde as the surprisingly down-to-Earth Alistair (“I’m an occultist, James, not a crazy man”) but it is Sightseers’ Eileen Davies who rules the film as the ruthless Elizabeth, the woman who once instructed Alistair and who now teaches Thea what she needs to survive, a series of harsh lessons which begin by telling the six year old child that no matter what happens she must never call her mummy and daddy for help otherwise they too may get hurt.
Moving from the urban to the countryside changes the nature of the threat, the unsympathetic Elizabeth as assured drawing circles of protection in the mud with a branch of hazel as she is gutting a rabbit, and while individually few of the elements are of note, like the hallucinogenic brews she serves to broaden the vision of her charges, the combination is surprisingly effective and potent.