As a Director, David Goyer makes a fine Writer and Producer. In those fields he’s lent his talents to a string of comic book inspired films, including Christopher Nolan’s hugely successfully BATMAN reboots. Behind the lens—helming a feature film—he’s given us the passable BLADE: TRINITY and the nearly unwatchable THE INVISABLE. Like that last film, THE UNBORN is a supernatural thriller. However, unlike that anemic production, this time around Goyer ratchets the horror up quite a few notches. Well…PG-13 notches, but whose complaining… yet.
Borrowing broadly from mystical Jewish Kabbalah canon Goyer crafts the story of Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman, CLOVERFIELD) – a Chicago-area college student who has been having strange dreams about a ghostly boy, only to wake up and discover that they might not be dreams at all. After Casey is bizarrely attacked by a young child she has been babysitting, she awakens to discover her eye is mysteriously changing from brown to blue. When a trip to the Eye Doctor suggests that Casey might be a twin, she confronts her father and discovers she had a brother that died in the womb. Is the strange ghostly boy the soul of her unborn twin brother—come back to haunt her? And, did the guilt of miscarrying a child cause her mother’s suicide years before, or is something much more sinister at work?
Goyer gets a lot of credit for attempting—thematically—to broaden the confines of your everyday, average, evil spirit/possession story. He succeeds in this by touching on elements of Kabbalic premises. The demon that haunts Casey is identified as a Dybbuk—a soul refused entry into heaven that roams the earth looking for a body to inhabit. The scripture that is used to cast out the demon is the Sepher Ha-Razim or as the film describes it “The Book of Mirrors”. In a twist, the films exorcism sequence is conducted by both a Rabbi (Gary Oldman) and an Episcopalian Priest (Idris Elba, PROM NIGHT)—the two men allude to the idea that an evil as old as the one they are facing would never be constrained by the boundaries of a specific religion. The evil is older than religion. It’s all a very interesting premise and in the hands of a filmmaker with a bit more savvy in the craftsmanship department, THE UNBORN might have been a tense little thriller with a weighty backstory. Unfortunately, the film is rather a mess.
For a supernatural suspense thriller, what we wind up with is a fair amount of supernatural—which Goyer borrows heavily from the Asian Horror handbook—and not much suspense. The film has a few jump scares here and there, but for the most part the production is a meandering mess with only moments of sporadic interest. The problem is that the film moves from Point A to Point B to Point C is such a succinct and linear fashion that the audience can forecast every major event in the film 15-minutes before it happens. The ending of the film—designed no doubt to be a shocking revelation—is suggested to so early on that I was beginning to wonder when they were ever going to get around to revealing it.
The film’s other major problems are more complex than poor pacing and predictable plot points. The first involves the casting of Odette Yustman as Casey. At times, she seems too old to be playing a 19-year old college student. Then, only moments later, she giggles like a schoolgirl and all of a sudden it feels like she’s regressed all the way back to 9th grade. Yustman also seems to have difficulty in connecting to some of the more emotionally resonant moments—particularly when her best friend Romy (Megan Good, SAW V)) is in peril. Overall, it’s simply an uneven performance for the actress in her first starring role. Some of that blame once again falls on Goyer for not pushing her to a darker and more realistic place with her performance.
The final issue is more serious. Goyer—in what I can only hope is his attempt at homage, and not his attempt to slip the obvious past an audience he assumes wouldn’t get the reference—is jacking moments right out of THE EXORCIST, including the now legendary “spider walk” sequence. These moments distract from the film and show a shocking lack of originality, even if their intention is to honor the granddaddy of all possession stories.
It’s easy to pick apart the problems that THE UNBORN has because on the surface they seem so obvious. The real tragedy is that, as a writer, Goyer explores interesting concepts, but he’s sugar coating those ideas in order to make them accessible to the broadest possible audience—the PG-13 audience. I’m not saying that if Goyer had gone for a “hard R” that the film would have been any better—bloodier I’m sure, but not better. I’m saying, that when THE EXORCIST came out 30+ years ago, the film’s concept was high brow even if its execution was, at times, salacious. In the realm of PG-13, I don’t think anyone will tell you that THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE was poor excuse for a horror film. It’s as physically exhausting as any torture film I can think of, and almost noting happens in EMILY ROSE! Still, in both of those films, the story was supreme. THE UNBORN had that opportunity as well; unfortunately, it never quite connects the dots in a manner that makes for compelling cinema. But, hey…it’s still better than THE INVISIBLE.