As long as there’s been men and medicine, women have been prone to accusations of hysteria. Undoubtedly, mental illness exists, and some of the people who have to live with it are females, but throughout history there has always been the idea that girls should ‘act like ladies’, which is code for chicks should act calm and submissive and never raise their voice or act in any way that society has deemed inappropriate for their sex. The thinking that women should reel in their emotions and keep their complaints to a bare minimum so as not to be labeled hysterical is what stands out as Still/Born’s strong suit. The rest of the film, however, isn’t quite as accomplished.
It all starts in the labor room as young couple Mary (Christie Burke) and Jack (Jesse Moss) try to bring two tiny children into the world. The first child, Adam, comes easy, and these brand new parents couldn’t be prouder. Jack squeezes Mary’s hand and smiles, and she beams back at him like he’s the greatest thing in the world. However, when it comes time to deliver the second baby, a quick devastated glance from the nurse lets Mary know that the little boy she’s been trying so hard to give a good life won’t even get to see the crib that’s waiting for him back at home. Full of mixed emotions over simultaneously gaining and losing a child at the same time, Mary sulks around her and Jack’s big new house in upper-class suburbia. Jack attempts to console his wife, but to no avail, and before they both know it, Mary is slipping off the deep end – or is she?
Immediately following the loss of their son Thomas, Jack starts noticing some changes in Mary. She clearly still loves their son Adam, but her grief over losing their other unborn child is consuming what little happiness she still has left in her. Hearing demonic voices on the baby monitor, hallucinating winged creatures looming over Adam’s crib, conjuring up a mythical creature who she has come to believe is out to steal her son – postpartum depression has Mary by the throat, and it’s tightening its grip just a little bit more every single day. Of course, to Mary, the only thing more petrifying than the thoughts inside of her head is letting the people around her know just how bad her melancholy has gotten. It’s one thing for a woman to experience the effects of giving birth to a lifeless child, but it is quite another to make her husband and her therapist aware of her state of mind. Better she hides her despair from the men in her life, lest their take her kid away and lock her up in the looney bin. It’s a really fascinating commentary on PPD, especially given the dynamic of Mary dealing with giving birth to one baby and losing another at the same time – it’s too bad that director Brandon Christensen doesn’t even realize what he has right in front of him.
Christensen is more concerned with the creature. Just like the biggest scary baby movie of them all, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Christensen bounces back and forth between showing Mary’s perspective, which suggests that the demon terrorizing her home (called Lamashtu) is real, and the perspective of her husband and her doctor, which shows that she’s clearly losing her mind and imagining things that aren’t really there because she can’t deal with her grief. However, this is where the film starts to become a little messy. Christensen becomes so preoccupied with separating himself from his influential predecessor that he pours all of his focus into the wrong element of his own movie.
There is some good stuff here. Christensen does manage to pull off some frightening sequences that will make most audiences jump, and whether or not it was entirely intentional, he does spark a unique and intriguing conversation about the tendency to label women as hysterical whenever they start to show emotion after a traumatic event. Still/Born is a decent little movie about pregnancy terror, it’s just that it could have been so much more.