Sometimes a movie makes a decision so dumbfounding, or takes a narrative path so peculiar, that it can’t fully recuperate from such a lame left turn. It happens all the time in horror, from the false ending where the killer, presumed dead, is simply playing possum before unleashing more meaningless slice and dice on his moronic victims to the “it was all just a dream” dynamic that is frequently jerryrigged to included after-death and/or life experiences.
And then there is The Unborn. With David Goyer behind the lens, anyone who expected a terror tour de force needed to have their preoccupied pre-teen head examined. For everyone else, the screenwriter responsible for (part of) the Batman franchise reboot has been trading on the new Caped Crusaders commercial cache for far too long. First there was the awful The Invisible, and now we get a stupid fright fest that tosses in exorcism, demonic children, and a halting Holocaust reference for added idiocy.
Megan Fox’s non-blockbuster familiar, Odette Yustman, stars as Casey Beldon, a coed with the propensity toward seeing dead people. Every night she dreams of a satanic little boy with Meg Foster’s eyes.
During the day, she’s tormented by equally unsettling visions. Her distant father chalks up said struggles to the suicide of her mother. Casey is convinced, however, that the creepy kid is trying to kill her.
Things become even more muddled when our heroine learns that she is a twin, that her brother died in the womb, and that her grandmother was a victim of Dr. Mengele’s experiments on Jews in Auschwitz. After stealing a sacred book from the local library, she looks up a Rabbi who might be able to help.
Turns out Casey is being stalked by a dybbuk, a malicious spirit that wants to steal her body, cross over, and live in the real world. It’s been after the family since World War II, and without some kind of religious ritual, it just might succeed this time.
The Unborn is like a scary movie sentence without the necessary linking verbs. It’s all genre gears and no motivational motor. There is not a single character we care about, not a single moment of genuine fear or dread.
As he proved with The Invisible, Goyer sure knows how to dumb down the standard horror concepts—and we’re not talking about a rocket scientist cinematic category to begin with. It’s as if he purposely looks at the marketing demographic—bored teens with disposable cash and gullible dispositions who couldn’t care less about things like characterization, plot logic, or smart dialogue—and then specifically dials into that dopey wavelength.
Then he manufactures a narrative with all payoffs, but with none of the mandatory set-up to get you invested in the terror. And just when you think things can’t get any weirder, along comes a sidetrack through the Final Solution to make the whole thing ethically questionable.
Indeed, it’s the moment when Jane Alexander’s wise old woman cliché croaks out the word “holocaust” when The Unborn goes from slightly tolerable to terrible. Up until that point, we’ve bought the various forced filmmaking shocks, the typical trip through ambient noises, secondary education hallucinations, and that obligatory shot of our heroine hoping that she’s simply slipped a gasket ... or two.
But then Hitler has to enter into the mix, an obvious ploy to place the dybbuk (a facet drawn from Hebrew folklore) within some sort of recognizable context. What Mr. Goyer doesn’t understand is that demons can be just that—unstoppable imps with an urge to cause major mischief among the living.
Just ask Sam Drag Me to Hell Raimi. Not every monster needs a culturally valid backstory. Toss in Gary Oldman as the unlikeliest rabbi ever, and you’ve got a Torah full of tripe.
And it just gets worse. Even in the extended DVD cut which promises more unrated bang for your already underwhelmed buck, the last act of The Unborn plays like a community college crash course on William Peter Blatty. We get the sudden arrival of a helpful, athletic priest, the mumbo jumbo jollies of a call and response sacrament, various body convultions, and enough upside down headed dogs to give the ASPCA fits.
Add in the sudden stop to all the supernatural shenanigans, an ineffectual and pointless ending that tries to trick us, and an epilogue which introduces an element into the story that any right thinking fright fan could see coming from a couple of dozen hectares away and you’ve got junk—a lumpy, lunatic landfill overflowing with the half-forgotten ideas of a dozen would-be macabre masters. It’s safe to say that adolescents obsessing on the subject in their parent’s basements could come up with more compelling thrills.
All of which gives Goyer’s continuing prominence in Hollywood a questionable black eye. Considering the less than successful facets of his Dark Knight-less career (Jumper, Blade: Trinity) and the possible projects he has on tap (X-Men Origins: Magneto among the many), it’s clear that Christopher Nolan will be carrying this show biz shoulder shrug for at least another Bat dance - and that’s really too bad. Someone should really inform the studio suits that the mammoth success of some single project does not instantly equate to artistic excellence for all of its many creative contributors.
The Invisible may have been a watchable waste of time, but it at least it didn’t flummox every last aspect of your overall horror film fandom. Watching this kind of contrived dreck makes one contemplate their own sense of genre love.
It also raises the question of context. Had Goyer avoided anything to do with the most heinous crime in the history of mankind, if we hadn’t flashbacked to a barracks filled with kids and Nazi operating tableaus featuring wee ones in various states of experimentation, would The Unborn really have been any better? Did this midpoint maneuver, clearly meant as a way of justifying the rest of the faux fire and brimstone hokum, really drive the movie into the ground - or was Goyer’s presence already enough to sink this stupid concept from the start?
Lost in all of this is the desire of movie fans to experience something original, terrifying, and (ultimately) fun. The Unborn may have started life as a decent idea. Somewhere between concept and birth, this baby turned bad…really bad.