When you get right down to it, infants are not for the squeamish. Following the harrowing ordeal of childbirth, the cutting of the umbilical cord, the expulsion of the placenta, and the wince-inducing episiotomy, you’ve still got to deal with breast pumps, nipple soreness, and the kid’s fontanel (always creepy); in short, childbirth is one subject that can be milked for easy shocks. Writer/director Paul Solet’s feature film debut, GRACE, is carried by a handful of potent scenes that cleverly mine our fears of early parenthood. Too bad the potency is diluted by sluggish pacing and a couple of baggy subplots.
Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd, CABIN FEVER) and her husband have been struggling to conceive for the past three years, resorting to fertility drugs and a fanatical adherence to holistics and health food. Finally pregnant, Madeline is determined to experience childbirth with a midwife, but her fiercely bitchy mother-in-law insists on using her own personal M.D., undermining Madeline’s personal birthing decisions every chance she gets. At 31 weeks along, a cruelly random car accident severely injures Madeline, leaving her baby stillborn inside of her. She makes the difficult decision to carry the dead baby to term, and although she gives birth to a lifeless infant in her midwife’s birthing pool, after a few moments the baby miraculously begins to breathe.
Madeline is enraptured with Grace, her miracle daughter, and although the hospital would like to investigate Grace’s resurrection with a series of blood tests, Madeline is reluctant. Alone at home with her infant, Madeline is disturbed when Grace begins to attract house flies, and, even worse, is disinterested in breast milk, only to be eagerly enraptured when Madeline’s torn nipple leaks blood into her newborn mouth. Yes, it seems that Grace craves blood. Madeline tries to satiate her with the excess gore squeezed from a package of supermarket steaks, but Grace continues to cry, unsatisfied. So Madeline must look elsewhere for blood…
Madeline’s cat is named “Jonesy”, a subtle reference to ALIEN, and like Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Solet’s movie explores the intrinsic fears of motherhood. Expanded from his 2006 short film of the same name, GRACE works best during its tight mutant baby moments, when it most strongly resembles Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE! During the introspective scenes reflecting on a lesbian relationship in Madeline’s past, or the segments featuring the grieving mother-in-law acting out her maternal fantasies, GRACE grows sluggish and tiresome, bearing the stretch marks of a short film idea that has been unnecessarily expanded to feature length. Although several moments in GRACE pack a visceral punch, those scenes are shot-gunned across a poorly-paced narrative, resulting in an acceptably entertaining, if sometimes uneven, horror movie experience.
At the Sundance screening I attended, the audience whooped, hollered, and screamed, and two men reportedly fainted during the show. It’s true that Solet takes the audience on a twisted ride down a very dark birth canal, but is it dark and twisted enough? Sundance audiences may scream and faint at the likes of GRACE, but the die-hard horror fan will be merely amused by Solet’s bloodthirsty baby shenanigans. Without much of a plot driving the action, the film’s success depends solely on mood and tone, and GRACE, although diverting, isn’t quite haunting enough to make a lasting impact. At 45 minutes, GRACE would be an impressively bizarre, tightly-wound stunner, but at a swollen 94 minutes, it sticks around for too long after its due date.