On “The Unborn”

01.10.09 9 years ago 4 Comments

Warner Bros.

Written and directed by David Goyer, “The Unborn” covers some familiar ground, but at least at first, it manages to do so with a bit of panache.  Part ghost story, part exorcism film, the movie only unravels once it gets down to the business of explaining what’s happening.  One of the drawbacks to building any ghost story around a mystery is that the big reveal almost always underwhelms, and “The Unborn” is no exception, managing to deflate well before the big finish.

Odette Yustman (last seen in “Cloverfield”) stars as Casey, a young woman suffering from bizarre nightmares.  When she’s attacked one night by a little boy she’s babysitting, she’s freaked out.  And it’s not just because of the eerie way she finds him, holding a mirror to his baby brother’s face as he croaks “Jumby wants to be born now”, either.  It’s more that the nightmares seem to be spilling into her waking life.  That’s the stuff Goyer gets right at first… the creepy slow burn of the opening act, the way that thin tissue between dreams and reality starts to lift for Casey.  Yustman makes for an adorable lead, and the producers seem to be very aware of why she was cast in the film.  If “The Unborn” is remembered for anything, it will be for the single greatest incident of PG-13 cameltoe in film history.  Remember that international one-sheet for the film?  The poster where she’s standing at the bathroom mirror and the emphasis seems to be on the tiny white panties she’s wearning more than anything else?  Well, that’s actually in the film, and when she finally turns around, it’s startlingly explicit.  I feel like I could pick her vajay out of a police line-up now.  You’ve got to give them points for truth in advertising, I suppose.

As the film progresses, it just sort of falls apart.  It’s a shame, too.  There are some interesting ingredients here.  I like the idea that Goyer wanted to play with Jewish mysticism instead of the same old Catholic notion of possession, and it does give him some fresh imagery to play with in the film.  But he takes a huge risk trying to tie this fairly lightweight thriller to something real and profound like Auschwitz, and when you mention one of the worst death camps of the Holocaust and you get a laugh from the audience, something has gone terribly wrong.  It doesn’t help that the basic aesthetic of the film (creepy kid, escalating jump scares, “Scooby-Doo” puzzle pieces) was worn thin by the J-horror glut of the last few years.  I think maybe we need to reinvent this entire type of horror story somehow.  You can see how much Goyer enjoys building the scares at the start of the film, but also how much he seems straitjacketed by the structure of the story.

The biggest problem with the film is the way we spend most of the running time with Yustman and her two wildly unappealing friends Romy (Meagan Good) and Mark (Cam Gigandet), while the two most interesting characters aren’t introduced until almost the end of the film.  Gary Oldman plays Rabbi Sendak, the Kaballah expert who Casey turns to for help, and Idris Elba (best known as Stringer Bell on “The Wire”) plays an Episcopal priest who Sendak turns to for help.  They bring up the idea of why one particular faith’s words might have some power over an entitity that may predate man, and I wish Goyer had not only introduced these characters earlier, but also switched the focus to these modern men trying to deal with the experience.  Instead, Oldman has about four scenes in the film and Elba, who is an enormously charismatic performer, is reduced to a couple of lines of dialogue and an unintentionally funny make-up job.  The great Jane Alexander seems stranded, striking the wrong tone completely, playing everything too broad. 

Overall, I think her work sums up the larger problems with the film.  It’s certainly not the worst thing Platinum Dunes has produced, and I admire them for making something that’s not a remake.  But I can’t reccommend the film as a whole.  If you’re in the mood for some basic horror tropes served up, “The Unborn” might hit the spot, but it’s really only for hardcores who are tired of the Oscar-bait.  All others may want to leave “The Unborn” as the unseen.

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