Certain movie titles are better in theory than practice. “Something,” Stephen Portland’s low-budget psychological horror film about the stress brought on by caring for a newborn baby, has a title that refers to the mysterious force disrupting the lives of two young parents. (The characters, who are never named, are played by Jane Rowen and Michael Gazin.) Is that force nothing more — or less — than the mother’s postpartum fear and depression? Is it a mysterious physical intruder? Or is it a spirit that arrives in the form of a black-cloaked figure wearing one of those creepy long-beaked plague-doctor masks? (If it is a spirit, this leave us wondering: Why does the mask look like a fifth grader’s papier-mâché art project?)
The ambiguity, or maybe we should just call it confusion, is supposed to be expressed by the title, which is offered in the ominous something? what thing? spirit of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” But instead, the word “Something” just sounds like a noncommittal placeholder. And the film is a little like that too. The entire thing is set inside the stark rooms of the couple’s angular suburban home, and they, along with the baby, are the only two characters (apart from a sprinkling of cops). “Something” has a few observations to make about the perils of contemporary parenthood, but instead of whipping them into tension it douses them in catch-as-catch-can thriller vagueness.
The best part of the movie is its opening half hour, during which Portland, whose debut feature this is, demonstrates a sharp ear for the kind of dog-whistle provocations a couple can engage in when the infant who’s suddenly at the center of their world has altered everything, starting with the way they relate.
Rowen’s character is working hard to be the “perfect” mother, which causes her to lash out at anything her husband does that isn’t fully supportive of that mission. A number of her demands are reasonable (like griping that he hasn’t fixed the water heater yet), a handful are unreasonable (like hinting that he should cancel a business trip built around one of his advertising clients). But what the movie captures is the way parental politics has now become a passive-aggressive language of power and supplication. The prospect of moving the crib out of the bedroom and into the nursery turns into a delicate psychodramatic skirmish, symbolized by the fact that Gazin has to take the whole damn thing apart just to get it through the door. (Now there’s a horror premise, and title, for you: a living nightmare called “The IKEA Instruction Manual Massacre.”)
At a time when the roles of men and women, more than ever, are changing, the demands of parenthood just up the ante on all the ways that they can misunderstand or even resent each other. “Something,” for a while, feels like a threadbare variation on the maternal-horror genre of “Rosemary’s Baby,” and the movie should have emerged out of the walking-on-eggshells tensions that develop between Rowen and Gazin. The two come off as the sort of sharp, sensitive, knowing parents who, these days, are prone to overanalyzing what they’re doing. The desire to get everything “right” is their way of turning a natural process into a parent trap.
But “Something” takes an awkward dip into the supernatural-surreal when the two set up a baby monitor, and Rowen thinks she glimpses a presence in the other room. Is it a projection of what’s going on in her head? Or is the movie turning into “Paranormal Activity: The Crib Terror”? It’s supposed to be a bit of both, but the fright-film gambits are crudely lit and staged, and they seem to have dropped in from another movie. We keep watching to see what’s “real,” but instead of becoming more disquieting the film just grows less convincing. By the time Eric Roberts shows up, in a cameo appearance, as a chuckling coroner, you may feel that “Something” has toyed with the audience in one too many ways.