When reviewing a truly stupid and clunky film, it’s often tempting to avoid critical thought and instead simply hurl an endless assortment of pithy puns and one-liners in a self-conscious attempt to feel superior to the lame subject at hand. For example, in dealing with the Michael Bay-produced The Unborn I could simply snidely refer to it as being “poorly conceived”, “labourously delivered” or, perhaps more crudely, “a messy afterbirth”. But I shan’t let these alluring temptations sway my course in properly informing you of how truly pitiful and dunderheaded The Unborn truly is.
Set in a very murky looking Chicago, The Unborn opens with that most treasured standby of hacky horror scribes: the surreal dream sequence. In this particular nightmarish-reverie, young Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman – last seen playing monster fodder in Cloverfield) strolls uneasily through a lonely, foreboding suburban street where she encounters a paper-masked dog and a blue-eyed demon-child. Despite her friends’ and families’ dismissive attitudes toward these nocturnal terrors (not to mention her sudden change in eye colour), it becomes swiftly apparent during a particularly hellish babysitting gig that otherworldly forces are at fiendish play.
With a little light research, Casey discovers two vitally important facts: that she is of Jewish ancestry, with familial ties to Nazi concentration camps and experimentation, and more importantly, that she once had a twin brother who died while still in utero. In bringing these shocking revelations to light, our intrepid heroine learns that she is being supernaturally hounded by a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit famed in Jewish folklore, who yearns to enter into our world through her. With the aid of slumming special guest star Gary Oldman, playing a friendly neighbourhood rabbi, young Casey must valiantly attempt to exorcise the pesky demonic nuisance and forever close the book on her family’s own frighteningly tumultuous past.
Now, in theory, the concept of a Jewish variation on The Exorcist is a great idea. Why should the Catholics have all the fun in banishing paranormal trouble-makers and kicking undead ass? Unfortunately though, writer/director David S. Goyer (the screenwriting guiding force behind Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy, who also acted as a collaborator of increasingly dubious importance on the recent Batman films) is unquestionably not the man to accomplish so noble a task.
From the outset, in failing to establish a compelling canvas for his characters, Goyer bungles the whole project. The best atmospheric horror flicks, like The Shining or Poltergeist, depend on well-established relatable characters who involve us in their day-to-day lives, drawing us into a false sense of comfort before the screaming starts. The Unborn, unfortunately, ditches this philosophy and utilizes the Slasher film motif, which calls for one-dimensional Calvin Klein models who speak solely in the robotic type of teen-speak best known by forty-year-old Hollywood writers.
In addition, Goyer fails to create an interesting environment or back-story for Casey, his bland heroine. It’s hard to feel much empathy or fright when we’re asked to spend 87 minutes with frequently underwear-clad nonentity. Yustman, a pleasant Megan Fox lookalike, may possess talent but, judging from her often laughably overly sincere performance, lacks the charisma and skill to carry a film. (Yes, even this one!) Her limited range is especially apparent when acting opposite Gary Oldman, a pro even under the direst of circumstances, who understands the importance in adding dimension and idiosyncratic flair to tone-deaf dialogue and flat characterizations.
While Goyer fills his oddly self-important horror show with some creepy visuals, such as a dog with an upside down head and a freaky twisted-up old man who walks like a crab, he too often relies on annoying shots of his generic evil child antagonist shrieking. At this point, after sitting through umpteen Ring and Grudge clones, the days of finding well-dressed demonic children frightening are well behind me, not to mention endless chase scenes through moonlit abandoned gothic sets.
The fact that The Unborn is so cheerlessly dreary and persistently dull makes it almost impossible to really fire up much critical wrath over it. This is the type of artless quick-buck scary movie created to win a slow box-office weekend before vanishing into the nether realms of your local video store’s dusty horror section. You could almost pronounce it “stillborn” upon arrival... Not that I ever would, of course.
1 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Jan. 19th, 2009