Friday, December 13, 2013

The Unborn: Laying It On A Little Thick

(WARNING: I'm going to end up spoiling this movie over the course of this entry.)

Lately I've been thinking about restraint, and how underrated it seems like it's become in modern mainstream horror. It's not enough to let creepy shit happen in the background and let the audience discover it, it's not enough to suggest, to hint, to horrify through implication. Pile on the musical stings and the scares, because unless people are shown scary things every five minutes, they might forget it's a horror movie!  It's like the cinematic equivalent of those haunted-house rides where things pop out and go "BOO!" at you around every turn. Is it actually scary, or just startling? Part of what makes scary things scary is the way they contrast against the regular, everyday, "real" world. It's the intrusion of something evil and wrong into our safe, comfortable existence, and for it to work, it requires that we be grounded in that safe comfortable existence in the world of the movie before it all gets turned upside down.

The Unborn is in such a hurry to be a scary movie that it doesn't stop to establish the world in which it occurs before it starts messing with it.

The movie opens with a young woman out for a run. As she's jogging, she discovers a blue child's glove lying in the middle of the path. She stops to pick it up, and then bam! There's a creepy-looking little boy - all anachronistic clothes and chalk-white skin with dark circles around his eyes (his unnaturally blue eyes) and not saying anything - standing there. Then bam! The boy is gone, replaced by a dog wearing a blank white human-faced mask (actually not as silly as I'm making it sound). Then she's following the dog into the woods, where it vanishes, leaving the mask on the ground. The young woman starts digging around in the leaves under the mask, and she finds…a fetus. Yes, it was all a dream, though the movie at least has the good taste not to end the scene with her sitting up in bed screaming. The sequence is equal parts heavy-handed cliche and effective spookiness, but what is more problematic is that it's, like, the first five minutes of the movie. We don't even know who this person is and bad shit is already happening to her.

This person - Casey - is a college student who lives with her well-to-do father. Her mother passed away when she was younger, from causes initially unspecified. Soon enough, the weirdness seeps out of her dreams and into everyday life, when she catches the kid she babysits holding a mirror up to his newborn sibling's face and chanting some weird shit. When she puts a stop to it, the child (not the creepy kid from her dreams but kinda weird in his own right) states matter-of-factly that "Jumby wants to be born" before hitting her in the face with the mirror. And it's all downhill from there - she starts hallucinating, and she's developing heterochromia in the eye that got hit with the mirror. That eye is turning an unnatural blue.

Some sort of supernatural force is after Casey, and the body of the film is concerned with investigating a rat's nest of family secrets - the circumstances surrounding her mother's death (which, as it transpires, was a suicide), who "Jumby" is, exactly, the identity of the mysterious old woman her mother went to visit - and what they have to do with the malevolent force intruding on Casey's life. There's nothing wrong with this sort of approach, but ghost stories generally benefit from space, silence, and careful attention to detail, and this movie can't help but pile shit on, like we'll stop being scared the instant there isn't something creepy happening or as soon as the shocking twist revelations stop coming. The result is a barrage of imagery and story beats that doesn't stop long enough to become scary. It's technically well-executed - some of the imagery is a little obvious, some of it is really effective, and it's more or less internally cohesive, but it it really suffers from the decision to drop us head-first into spooky supernatural stuff before we even have a reason to care. It doesn't help that everyone in the movie is more of a character than they are a fully realized person. That's not a problem in and of itself if the story or the mood or the imagery or the atmosphere makes it easy to overlook the lack of characterization, but the filmmakers are hanging an absolute glut of plot and imagery on characters who don't so much interact with each other as say and do what they would probably say and do regardless of what's going on. It feels less like they're reacting to what's happening to Casey and more like they're just sort of saying stuff when it's their turn to talk. It makes what's already sort of a confusing mess feel a little sterile and calculated as well. The machinery is showing.

And when I call it a glut of plot and imagery, I mean the filmmakers do not know when to quit. It's not enough to just have a mysterious kid - the mysterious kid has to look dead, and he has to do that thing where after a second or two into the shot, his face goes all distorted and scary for no apparent reason. It's not enough for the protagonist to be hallucinating this creepy kid in a crowded club, it has to be followed immediately by a scene where she's trapped in the club's bathroom while the toilets and faucets vomit up blood and insects everywhere. It's not enough for her to be haunted by the ghost of her unborn brother (which is a pretty cool premise in and of itself, and could make for a really good, squirmy, uncomfortable movie), that ghost has to actually be a demon who was trying to possess her unborn brother after possessing the brother of the protagonist's grandmother - a brother who died as a result of experiments performed on twins during the Holocaust. I mean, come the fuck on - that's, like, two or three movies' worth of premise right there. It's not enough that the demon can possess people, it also has to twist them into weird shapes while it does it (except when it doesn't and they just look sort of like the "zombies" from 28 Days Later). The filmmakers just keep piling shit on.

It's just all too much of a muchness. Even the climactic exorcism scene suffers from this excess - pretty much any movie that involves an exorcism builds to the exorcism and that carries with it a certain feeling of anticipation or dread that doesn't need a lot of extra help. Only here. the exorcism is being held in an abandoned church that's had creepy graffiti scrawled all over the walls - like it's not enough that people have gathered to perform this ritual, you have to have the actual walls going BOO! as well? And the unwillingness to let the characters have lives outside of what's necessary to drive the plot ends up being problematic, as the end reveal for the cause of the whole thing presupposes information we didn't really have. Why didn't we have it? Because the movie begins, cold open, with the weird shit starting. It's not a huge cheat or anything - it asks us to believe that something totally plausible happened - but that we're expected to understand and accept that after the fact just calls attention to how much is sacrificed for the sake of cramming in as much stuff as possible, just for the sake of setting up the ending.

I feel like  a lot of my problems with films I haven't liked lately have been some variation on the idea that they're just going through the motions - putting the "scary parts" into a negligible narrative framework without any sense of context or feeling that these things have emerged from a believable world with real people in it. I wonder how much of this stems from a sense of contempt for horror as a genre - or contempt for genre film in general. As if "genre film" means you just have to hit the right notes, include the right type of scenes, and you'll have a hit. The Unborn doesn't feel as cynical or lazy as that - it's got pretty high production value and a surprisingly strong cast - but it feels desperate to get the job done, like it doesn't trust its audience to be patient or to catch subtle details, or to get caught up in the atmosphere of the film without some bit of business going on onscreen. And that's just as dismissive and contemptuous of the audience as the most obvious cash-in.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Unvailable from Netflix

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