Director : David S. Goyer
Screenplay : David S. Goyer
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Odette Yustman (Casey Beldon), Gary Oldman (Rabbi Sendak), Meagan Good (Romy), Cam Gigandet (Mark Hardigan), Idris Elba (Arthur Wyndham), Jane Alexander (Sofi Kozma), Atticus Shaffer (Matty Newton), James Remar (Gordon Beldon), Carla Gugino (Janet Beldon), C.S. Lee (Dr. Lester Caldwell), Rhys Coiro (Mr. Shields)
January continues to be the doldrums when it comes to horror movies, a kind of sad dumping ground for shoddy genre fare that can be hacked down into an effective two-minute trailer, as a full feature proves to be either silly, nonsensical, or both. David S. Goyer’s latest, The Unborn, is a little bit of both, although it is primarily nonsensical in its story about demon possession, exorcism, the danger of mirrors, and the evils of Nazi experimentation on young children. Don’t say he didn’t try, though, as the only thing Goyer doesn’t throw at us is the kitchen sink, although he does give us a deliriously nasty and, yes, nonsensical sequence in which a curiously unpopulated nightclub bathroom explodes in icky brown water and thousands of squirming bugs. The Unborn is also, quite interestingly, the only horror movie I’ve ever seen in which an exorcism is performed on the one character in the movie who’s never really possessed.
But, I get ahead of myself. Goyer doesn’t waste a second of screen time before launching us into creepiness, with the college-age heroine Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman, last seen escaping the tentacled behemoth in Cloverfield) going for a jog in a frozen Chicago park and coming across a pit bull in an eerie human mask and then catching her first glimpse of the movie’s blue-eyed demon child, who will haunt both her sleeping and waking moments. In the next scene she’s babysitting and we get another creepy little boy who slashes her with a mirror and then intones something about “Jumbly” wanting to be born. A few more demon child sightings later (including one in her medicine cabinet), Casey discovers that she was a twin and that her would-be brother died in the womb. She and her superstitious but still skeptical best friend Romy (Meagan Good) soon find themselves at a retirement home visiting a Holocaust survivor named Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) who may have known Casey’s mother, who had a nervous breakdown, spent time in the world’s creepiest mental institution, and then killed herself. This then leads Casey to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman), a Talmudic scholar who may be able to help her perform an exorcism to rid herself of the demonic presence that’s constantly trying to break into her world.
And there’s more actually, quite a bit more, although none of it really coheres or makes any kind of sense outside of providing excuses for hair-raising sequences and jump moments (mostly involving Casey in virtually no clothing) that are just tame enough to slip in under the PG-13 radar. If Goyer deserves any praise, it is for devising some genuinely unsettling images, including an elderly man who morphs into a rampaging crab-crawler-thing and a pit bull with an upside-down head. The uncanny nature of these images--their simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity creating a unique sense of dread--are the film’s best assets, but they take up all of three minutes in the otherwise nonsensical narrative.
How nonsensical is it? Here are a few examples: In one sequence, Sofi tells Casey that she must break every mirror in the house, burn the shards of glass, and then bury the burned remains in the backyard because mirrors can be portals through which demons enter our world. There is much emphasis in the ensuing montage on the burning and burying, but in the very next scene there is a clear shot of a mantle that is covered with a pile of broken shards of glass. That inconsistency is small, however, next to the fact the film makes no attempt to establish a coherent set of rules by which possession occurs, with the evil entity conveniently leaping from body to body both dead and alive, which makes you wonder why it is so fixated on possessing Casey aside from someone saying that it has a taste for her family’s blood. Speaking of family, Casey has a father played by James Remar who appears in the film in exactly two scenes: One to offer her a piece of cheesecake in the enormous house in which they both reside, thus justifying the production designer’s obsession with wealth, and then later to explain to Casey her background as a could-have-been twin. Then, he just disappears from the story completely. It is mentioned at one point that he went on a business trip, although it is also mentioned that he is supposed to return the next day. I guess his plane went down and nobody noticed.
As a writer, Goyer is usually much better than this. After having worked his way up the ranks, starting in the early ’90s with horror cheapies like Demonic Toys (1992) and The Puppet Masters (1994), he eventually made his mark with unique twists on genre material like Dark City (1998), Blade (1998), and Batman Begins (2005). As a writer/director, however, he has been less successful, with the overcooked Blade: Trinity (2004) and The Invisible (2007), quite possibly the most overearnest ghost story ever made that didn’t star Patrick Swayze. I have the feeling that The Unborn had potential on the page, especially with its curious mixture of Jewish mysticism and traditional Christian-inspired horror elements. But, something happened in the translation, and while the resulting film is not unwatchable, it is extremely disappointing.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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