"First Born," the direct-to-video feature debut of writer/director Isaac Webb, intends to be the sort of tale that uses horror movie analogy to inflate common fears into extraordinary terror: "The Amityville Horror" as homebuyer worry, "Rosemary's Baby" as postpartum anxiety, that sort of thing. Speaking of which, "First Born" owes pretty much everything to "Rosemary's," as it, too, tackles the same area of parental panic, following the story of Laura (Elisabeth Shue), a dancer who suffers a mental breakdown after the birth of her first child.
Is she going crazy, or is something more sinister at play? We expect the latter, having already seen what happened with Mia Farrow and that chocolate mousse. But the movie is coy about the truth - which is intriguing for a while, until we gradually realize that we're being led down all these paths that go nowhere, and when the plot turns do manage to somehow work themselves out, we've already figured them out long before the script catches up to us.
We follow Laura and her husband (Steven Mackintosh) throughout her awkward pregnancy, during which she gives up her career, moves out to a secluded house in the country, and accidentally kills her dog with rat poison. Following the birth, she manages to lock herself in the basement, leave the baby in the car, and take up smoking, which means we're enjoying the misadventures of the world's worst mother.
One shady afternoon, an old lady with a strange European accent (Kathleen Chalfant) arrives at the front door, claiming to have been hired by the husband to be a nanny. She insists she has good intentions, but soon we see her placing something under the crib. A voodoo object? Part of some witchcraft ritual?
And did she, as Laura claims, leave a butcher knife in the crib, or did Laura put it there herself? And what of the stranger whom Laura saw enter the house late at night? And what of the mice that have infested the house - are they, as Laura believes, an omen of some greater evil? A doll works its way into the plot. Is it cursed? There is also a diary of the young woman who once lived in the house. What happened to her? Why is she not at the college where a grocery clerk told her she was? Did she fall victim to something bad in the house? Will Laura and her baby be next?
In its efforts to end on an ambiguous note, the screenplay goes too far into mystery. It's not that the conclusion is confounding (it's quite predictable, really, and all too simple), it's that we've grown tired of having too many questions asked without any follow-up. Consider the diary. Laura finds it, frets about it for a very long time, then decides it does not matter, returning it to its hiding place, where it can once more hide from the relevant chapters of the plot.
Webb does build plenty of workable atmosphere - the movie is far less a horror film than a slow burning psychological chiller - and there's a steady sense of dread that seeps through many of the early scenes. But his story is left to become an absolute mess, jumping around with no sense for rhythm or logic, as if large chunks of the plot are missing (which may explain the bizarre appearance of Khandi Alexander on the DVD cover and in the IMDB as a cast member, despite her not being in the movie at all). It's as if we're watching the first two-thirds of a decent creepfest, and the missing third is where Webb put all the parts that make sense.
On the DVD cover, First Look mislabels "First Born" as being 120 minutes in length. The film actually runs slightly over 90 minutes. It also mislabels the aspect ratio; it is not 2.35:1, as stated, but instead 1.85:1.
Video & Audio
At least the thing looks nice, with the moody photography captured well in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that handles the heavy use of shadows and night quite well. Unfortunately, I cannot attest to the correct aspect ratio of the picture. At 1.85:1, the film never feels cramped, while the opening credits are bathed in such darkness that it kinda looks like letterbox bars, especially with a very faint streak of light along the top, right where a bar would meet the image. Or just the floor and curtains of the stage. Or something else. You be the judge:
(Anyone with more information on the film's OAR is politely asked to speak up and solve this matter.)
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack comes off rather well, making for an eerie soundscape in the right spots. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Just the film's trailer, plus previews for "A Little Trip to Heaven" and "Comeback Season," all in anamorphic widescreen.
Here's the plan: Rent It, remember to fast forward through all the redundant bits of Laura being a complete moron, stick around for the chilly, creepy bits, then turn the thing off as soon as you've figured out the ending.