The most effective horror movies prey on society's underlying fears. And then there's "The Unborn."
The most effective horror movies prey on fears percolating just beneath society’s surface. And then there’s writer-director David S. Goyer’s “The Unborn,” which conceives a demon unleashed by Nazi experiments in Auschwitz to justify its derivative Japanese-horror-style scares, rather than tapping into the anxiety of a pregnancy suggested by its title. Rogue Pictures, just sold to Relativity Media, should deliver healthy opening-weekend crowds for the PG-13 thriller by stressing Goyer’s “The Dark Knight” connection as well as the genetic advantages of young leads Odette Yustman, scene-stealing Meagan Good and “Twilight’s” Cam Gigandet.
Pic marks a departure for Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes shingle, representing the first original scarefest from an outfit best known for remaking such horror classics as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror.” And yet, so familiar are the recycled bits that make up this “The Exorcist”-meets-“The Grudge” combo that Goyer isn’t likely to get much credit for all the background research he did trying to flesh out a fresh backstory for such supernatural shenanigans.
In this case, he combines Jewish mysticism — technically, that’s a dybbuk possessing the people in scandalously sexy coed Casey Beldon’s life — with the perverse pseudoscientific experimentation practiced on twins by German doctors during World War II. Early in the film, Casey (“Cloverfield” vet Yustman) learns she is a twin, though her brother died in the womb. Casey is still haunted by visions of her mother (Carla Gugino), who went crazy and hanged herself years earlier, and now she fears the same thing may be happening to her. How else to explain the fact that Jumby (the dead boy’s nickname) “wants to be born now”?
Casey has creepy dreams about demon fetuses and hears an ominous knocking behind her bathroom mirror; breaking eggs one morning, she’s startled to find giant potato bugs in her skillet. Each of these visuals is accompanied by all the usual racket that can be expected to make teens jump that much higher in their seats — though widespread giggling seemed to be the more pervasive response at a preview screening.
It doesn’t help the director’s credibility that Casey spends much of her time taking showers and running around in her underthings (carefully balanced by footage of her beefcake boyfriend, played by Gigandet). Eventually, the sheer number of disturbances compel Casey to do some amateur sleuthing, which leads her to a Holocaust survivor (Jane Alexander) with clues about her family history.
Goyer presents these revelations in all seriousness, but betrays his comicbook background in the process. Whereas “The Dark Knight” (for which Goyer received a story credit) surprisingly allowed the Joker’s origins to remain a mystery, the medium typically goes to great lengths to explain villainy through a single, iconic creation myth. Here we get a fetishistic Nazi montage caught somewhere between camp and outright offensive, meant to explain the most original of “The Unborn’s” supernatural details: Casey’s eyes, which have been brown her entire life, are slowly turning blue.
An exorcism is Casey’s only hope, and for this task, Goyer enlists “The Dark Knight’s” Gary Oldman to play the rabbi charged with casting the demon out. But pic doesn’t imbue Rabbi Sendak with any of the self-doubt that afflicted “The Exorcist’s” Father Merrin, and the actor seems content to phone in his performance.
To Goyer’s credit, he never shies away from showing the things that terrorize Casey and her circle, which range from a snarling dog with its head upside-down to a multi-tentacled Lovecraftian presence lurking in the walls of a public restroom. But before long, the connective tissue between scares starts to call attention to its own preposterousness. Whereas Japanese horror movies have been criticized for not making sense, “The Unborn” errs on the opposite extreme, coming off all the more ridiculous for over-explaining itself.