Movie Review: The Unborn
By Matthew Huntley
January 13, 2009
Mirrors have been given a bad rap in horror movies. There's always something ominous lurking behind them, within them or around them. Why can't mirrors ever be viewed as hopeful or auspicious? Why does a reflection always cause somebody to scream, cry, fall down or die? If I was a mirror, I'd be mad. Perhaps a movie should be made about a mirror who's so tired of being portrayed negatively in horror movies that it takes revenge on all those who look at it. I don't think this exact premise has been done before, but it seems like it would fit right in among the genre.
The Unborn continues mirror stereotyping to a shameless degree and ill effect. After Casey (Odette Yustman) starts having bizarre dreams about deathly-looking children, dogs wearing masks and premature babies, she begins to hear noises coming from her bathroom mirror. She opens the medicine cabinet, but nothing is there...the first time. The next time she sees the same scary boy from her dream and he reaches out to grab her. All this happens after the neighbors' kid has hit Casey with, whaddya know, a small mirror.
What do Casey's dreams mean? According to her best friend Romy (Meagan Good), who has an interest in the occult, the images represent birth and vengeance, which is a strange combination indeed. Casey's estranged grandmother, Sofi (Jane Alexander), who's also a Holocaust survivor, explains Casey is being terrorized by a dybbuk, a demonic spirit that, because it wasn't allowed into Heaven, is trying to re-enter the world of the living. It's supposedly inhabiting the soul of Casey's twin brother, who died in the womb, but not before he passed some of his blood to Casey.
The same dybbuk once tried to take over Sofi's twin brother after he died at Auschwitz, but Sofi killed it, inciting the spirit to take revenge on everyone in Sofi's family. Now it wants to be freed. To rid her own body of the demon, Casey consults a rabbi (Gary Oldman) and Episcopal priest (Idris Elba) to perform a Jewish exorcism.
I know, the plot is silly, but it's promising enough and The Unborn starts out well; however, as early as the one-quarter mark, it began to lose its way. By the time it finally got to the exorcism climax, the movie had become such a convoluted mess of moronic dialogue, over-exposition and wannabe shocking imagery, it failed to notice it wasn't scary or interesting. One of the main problems is I never got the impression writer-director David S. Goyer ever took the dybbuk theory seriously. He doesn't lampoon the idea necessarily, but he also doesn't explore it as something that could really happen, which lessened my intrigue.
With a run time of only 87 minutes, The Unborn is always hurrying to the next set of loud crescendos, breaking glass, stabbings and monstrous effects. The plot becomes a mere excuse to recycle old horror conventions. Here's my question: instead of going for shock, why not focus on teaching the audience something about dybbuks (which, by the way, are actually part of Jewish folklore) and leave out all the hackneyed horror stuff? I was way more interested in the history of dybbuks than the violence.
There are a couple good things here, including the special effects, which are convincing and sometimes genuinely creepy. In two different scenes, the dybbuk possesses an outside body and the CGI transformation is done well. I also liked James Hawkinson's aerial photography of the snow-covered landscapes, which provided the movie with a dire tone. One of these shots opens the movie as Casey jogs along a desolate street and sees an unwholesome boy with bright blue eyes. There's no dialogue and we're drawn in by the threatening image. But we're quickly pulled out in the very next scene, when the characters begin to talk and the actors try to act. When Yustman, who's beautiful but in need of acting lessons, utters the line, "My umbilical chord?," to her father (James Remar), I was induced with uncontrollable laughter. Still, I'd rather laugh than become angry.
Simply put, as with most PG-13 horror movies, The Unborn isn't worth your time. Come to think of it, I doubt even an unrated version would be worth your time. Goyer, who co-wrote The Dark Knight, has an interesting premise on his hands, but it's at the mercy of a screenplay that waters down intelligence and theory in exchange for sensational effects and loud noises.
Back to the mirrors issue. I'll give the movie credit - at least it doesn't utilize the old cliche of the protagonist closing the medicine cabinet door only to suddenly reveal someone standing behind her. It almost does, but not quite. Perhaps there's progress being made and mirrors are becoming less typecast after all.