The Unborn – Review

The advertising art - with its ghostly child leering at a half-naked young woman - suggests perverse sexual undertones that do not emerge in the actual film.

The advertising art suggests perverse undertones that do not emerge in the film.

This highly hyped horror film may not be the most auspicious way to launch the New Year, but at least it surpasses last year’s J-Horror remake ONE MISSED CALL, which got the genre off on the wrong foot back in January of 2008. The ghost story stylization of David Goyer’s new supernatural thriller seems lifted from recent Asian Horror remakes, but UNBORN works better than ONE MISSED CALL (or SHUTTER and THE EYE, which also came out last year) because it is not burdened with translating a foreign story into the American idiom; it works on its own terms as an occasionally effective genre movie that never elevates beyond fulfilling the basic expectations. The result – which comes across like a Jewish version of THE EXORCIST, mixed with a touch of ROSEMARY’S BABY by way of THE OMEN – is little more than a by-the-numbers formula piece; fortunately, the numbers add up to some decent tension and a handful of genuine thrills. Undemanding teen audiences should be reasonably pleased, while more well seasoned enthusiasts will have their disapointment tempered by some good technical accomplishments and a few interesting ideas.

The story has college student Casey Beldon (Yustman) suffering nightmares that lead to the revelation that Casey had a twin brother who died in utero; nicknamed “Jumby,” the unborn brother turns out to be a dybbuk, the soul of a dead person denied entrance to heaven, who wants to reincarnate in the flesh. Following clues left by her dead mother (who committed suicide years ago), Casey encounters her long lost grandmother (a thoroughly convincing Jane Alexander), a holocaust survivor, who killed the dybbuk years ago after it possessed the body of her dead brother. Now, the dybbuck wants not only to be born but to avenge itself on Casey’s grandmother and the rest of her family. Casey’s only hope is to enlist a rabbi (Oldman) into performing a Jewish exorcism ritual.

Some great icy cold photography to sets the tone in the opening dream sequence, which contains some pleasantly bizarre imagery, such as a dog wearing a human face mask (we later learn the dogs in mythology are often messengers of the dead). As a director, Goyer immediately shows a knack for implanting expectations in the audience, creating tension before the actual scares arrive; sometimes, he is so effective that he even indulges the luxury of avoiding the cliche jump-scare altogether.

The use of the Kabbala to explain its supernatural phenomenon is a nice touch. How many horror films are based on Jewish mysticism rather than the more familiar Christian traditions? The only recent effort that comes to mind is FALLEN, which used a somewhat similar idea; UNBORN may not be great but it is a bit of an improvement over that 1998 waste of Denzel Washington’s time.

The script introduces some intriguing thematic underpinnings, courtesy of an early lecture on the history of the universe  (did it have a beginning, and if so, what happened before the beginning?), which prompt Casey and her boyfriend to wallow in a bit of existential angst about the great void of being and nothingness. Thus, in a sense, the appearance of the dybbuck, as frightening as it may be to Casey personally, provides almost a sense of relief, with its suggestion that the hereafter does exist. 

Sadly, these themes are not particularly well developed to the point where they elevate THE UNBORN beyong its genre trappings; they simply serve as the foundation for the horror shtick that follows. (Also, with the growing emphasis on visceral scares, some implications remain unfulfilled, such as the hints that the suicide of Casey’s mother may have been prompted by guilt, suggesting that the story of the twin brother’s death in utero may have been a cover story for infanticide.)

Once the movie moves down this path, it becomes a slick but routine thriller. Unlike last year’s MIRRORS ( in which the supernatural also manifested through reflections), UNBORN is a fairly smooth ride that does not promise too much more than it delivers – and avoids the bloody quagmire that drowned MIRRORS supernatural thrills in unconvincing gore.

Not that Goyer shies away from visceral thrills. Although there is little or no blood, there are some creepy makeup and computer-generated effects designed to destroy your comfort zone, including a catatonic old man who goes into painful looking contortions when possessed by the dybbuk. There is also a great nightmarish depiction of Casey’s mother, her face twisted into little more than a gaping open mouth. These flashy visuals work well even if their timing and placement – emphasized with flash-cuts – is a bit mechanical and occasionally overdone. (Goyer reuses the look for the Mother’s gaping face on another character later in the film – an encore that lessens the initial impact.)

Despite the early promise of something more, Goyer’s film gradually succumbs to singing the same old tired genre tropes, reducing itself to the modern equivalent of old-fashioned drive-in filler. Though with admittedly more technical polish than its antecdents of yesteryear, THE UNBORN is ultimately just another teen-targeted horror film, and it is unashamed about hitting the predictable moments:

  • Casey’s “I’m not crazy” routine (when her friends initially express skepticism about her being haunted) is so tired that Yustman can barely work up any conviction over it.
  • Casey’s best friend – who is also black - might as well put on a red shirt and enlist in Starfleet Academy because her chances of survival are about as high as those lieutenants on the old STAR TREK show.
  • Casey has a healthy support group: friends, family, boyfriend. But they conveniently disappear for large chunks of screen time to leave her alone and vulnerable. 
  • After the third-act exorcism goes awry, one of the supposedly dispatched participants makes a last-minute re-appearance just in time to save the day – and leave audiences collectively shaking their heads at the cornball machinations.
  • This leads to a twist ending that is anything but surprising. Besides being too predictable, the denouement also makes no sense – you realize that the dybbuk could have saved itself a lot of trouble and achieved its aim much more easily by lying low. Having announced its presence so obviously, the dybbuk has placed itself a position of complete vulnerability. Consequently, the supposedly chilling ”surprise” only leaves one expecting a sequel that would run about five minutes, entitled THE UNBORN II: THE ABORTION.

Goyer also seems unembarrassed about pandering to his target audience, which presumably includes lots of teenage boys eager to see female flesh on screen, whether or not the story requires it. Leading lady’s Yustman’s long straight hair and pleasantly pretty features suggest a Playboy Playmate circa the late 1960s – an effect Goyer emphasizes by showing her in her underwear in the bathroom or naked in the shower (back to the camera, shot waist up – sorry, fellas). The effect is only slightly more subtle than Lucio Fulci’s leering camera in ZOMBIE 2 (e.g., the infamous “nearly naked woman strapping on an aqualung” scene), but the heat generated here could barely register on a thermometer:  There is nothing really sexy going on in the film, and Yustman’s body is too skinny to ignite many sparks without a little more action to fan the flames.

As creepy kids go, THE UNBORN’s dybbuk will never match THE INNOCENTS, THE BAD SEED, or THE OMEN. He has a great undead look that works perfectly well in brief flashes, but he is little more than a puppet that the director flashes at the audience from time to time, jumping out of the shadows like a malevolent jack-in-the-box. This works well in the film’s coming attractions trailer, and it generates a few scares in the film itself, but it fails to resonate on a truly disturbing level. And he is hardly helped by his nickname, “Jumby,” which fails to strike terror in the heart of any but the most timid of viewers (and perhaps those who hate goofy sounding cute nicknames).

Perhaps sensing this, Goyer offers a a second creepy kid, who makes threatening pronouncements and eventually puts on a slicker and wields a knife as if auditioning for the evil dwarf role in a remake of DON’T LOOK NOW. Somewhere in the development process, someone should have told Goyer that two creepy kids in one movie is one too many.

In the end, THE UNBORN will keep you awake during its running time, but it will not breed enough nightmares to ruin your sleep after you get home from the theatre.

The dybbuck appears in a dream, indicating his wish to be born.

The dybbuck appears in a dream, indicating his wish to be born.

THE UNBORN (2009). Written and directed by David S. Goyer. Cast: Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Meagan Good, Cam Gigandet, Idris Elba, Jane Alexander, Atticus Shaffer, James Remar, Carla Gugino, Ethan Cutkosky.

This article has been edited to improve language and clarity.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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