As with ‘Giallo’ a couple of weeks ago, I approached this knowing that it had been roundly peed on by the critics, only to spend the first half wondering why they were being so down on it and relishing the prospect of writing a corrective review.
As with ‘Giallo’, the second half demonstrated exactly why it had got peed on and another promising “hey, wow, you really need to check this out” write-up turned to ash and blew away in the cold October wind like so many leaves gusting forlornly through a cemetery.
Saving graces? Well, the first half ain’t bad, there’s some reasonably effective (if derivative) scares, and leading lady Odette Yustman has a pleasing touch of the young Jennifer Connelly about it. (Believe me, such things can be the saving grace of an average movie.)
Yustman plays Casey Beldon, an average all-American high school student with a hunky boyfriend, Mark (Cam Gigandet) and a loyal best friend, Romy (Meagan Good). Her mother’s suicide a few years ago is the one dark moment in her otherwise fairly privileged life (yup, this is one those films where all the characters live in houses bigger than the freakin’ office building I work in), but her dad’s the supportive type and the future’s looking bright. This being a horror movie – and a Platinum Dunes horror movie at that – you just know this isn’t going to be the case for long.
A word about the Platinum Dunes connection. Regular readers of the blog will know that I rank Michael Bay only a few places below Satan in the league table of forces working to perpetrate hideous evil in this world, and that I once described Platinum Dunes as “less a film production company that a serial rapist lurking down the midnight streets of ’70s cinema”, I approached ‘The Unborn’ with trepidation. The only plus point seemed to be that at least it wasn’t another remake.
Or is it? The longer ‘The Unborn’ unraveled in front of me – which isn’t that long: it clocks in at 85 minutes, nearly ten of which are the end credits – the more I was convinced it was a remake in all but remake, or at the very least a patchwork quilt of heavy-handed influences. Kind of a “greatest hits” package of the films that Platinum Dunes would like to remake but know they don’t have a cat in hell’s chance.
Principally ‘The Exorcist’.
But we’re jumping ahead a little. Back to the plot synopsis. The movie starts with Casey troubled by visions of a child’s glove dropped in the middle of lonely street; a young boy appearing behind her, his face grey and eyes lifeless; and a jar of formaldehyde buried in the woods, contents: one foetus. There’s an incident while she’s babysitting, a small child holding a shard of glass over his infant sibling. Then Mark notices a strange pigmentation in one of Casey’s eyes. A minute or so of medical exposition suggests she’s a twin, a fact she contests: she’s an only child.
Then her father drops the bombshell: her twin brother died in the womb, throttled by Casey’s umbilical cord. This, as you can well imagine, is the kind of revelation that can blow a person’s blow right open. And writer/director David S Goyer does a commendable job, for the first half hour anyway, of keeping the creepy stuff low key and playing on how much of what follows is in Casey’s mind and how much is actually an invidious and age-old evil working its way ineffably into her life.
So far, so watchable. Then comes the time for explanations and this is where the locomotive of ‘The Unborn’ lurches around a blind curve and threatens to derail. Casey’s Jewish ancestry comes to light (because, yeah, you’d reach the age of nineteen without knowing you were Jewish) and Holocaust survivor Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) pops up to give it some more exposition. Turns out everything centres around a dybbuk which came into being after Sofi and her twin brother were the victims of Nazi experiments in Auschwitz.
Riiiiiiight. A demon out of Jewish folklore that had its Casey-specific genesis in the concentration camps. This takes us out of hokey but entertaining horror movie territory and gives the filmmakers two options: total lurid exploitationer or horror as catharsis in which the legacy of Hitler’s attempt at racial extermination is dealt with responsibly (or at the very least with some purpse). ‘The Unholy’ doesn’t really do either, and this is where the derailment occurs. The film wants to say something about the nature of evil; wants to say something about possession; wants to say something about how the shadows of the past are always creeping through the waning sunlight of the present. But it never quite functions on any level above mainstream narrative simplicity tinged with the imagery and editing tricks of J-horror.
And so we arrive back at ‘The Unholy’ as a template for what an ‘Exorcist’ remake would look like if Platinum Dunes ever got to have their wicked little way. Granted, Gary Oldman brings some gravitas to what is basically the Max von Sydow role, but a rite of exorcism in Hebrew just doesn’t cut it in comparison with “the power of Christ compels you”. Nor do the climactic exorcism or the painfully transparent last moment twist invite any comparison to the primal power of Friedkin’s classic.