The past decade or so has given us so many wonderful instant classics that the “most horror movies are terrible” myth is slowly, but surely, becoming a sentiment of the past. Although there have been so many excellent films over the last few years, the sheer number of movies available at any given moment sometimes makes it difficult to wade through the muck to get to the good stuff. This means just as much excitement is produced for a “hidden gem” when there is an overload of great content as there would be if most horror films truly were horrible.
During this golden age of horror, so many new ideas are being explored, as well as old ideas being reexamined with fresh perspectives. And yet, so many ideas and images are still considered taboo, even for a genre whose fanbase largely worships weapon-wielding, masked psychos who kill innocent people. Director Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born thumbs its nose at the notion of tameness and goes straight for the gut-punch in this grim, terrifying supernatural tale.
The film opens with an angelic childbirth scene. The baby is delivered, and parents Mary (Christie Burke) and Jack (Jesse Moss) smile and coo over their newborn. Soon, Mary starts pushing again and we discover she is expecting twins. Sadly, as the film’s title would suggest, the second baby doesn’t make it, and the parents look absolutely devastated.
The story continues as Mary and Jack settle into their daily routine again. Jack, an attorney, is always on the go while Mary stays home and takes care of the infant, Adam, and the family’s new house. It doesn’t take long before Mary starts hearing voices and seeing disturbing images when she’s alone with Adam. She soon discovers that a demon is trying to eat her baby and the only way to avoid this horrible fate for her son is to sacrifice the life of another newborn. Can this be real, or is she simply cracking under the stresses of loss and motherhood? The journey to the answer is chilling.
On its surface, Still/Born is a simple supernatural film combined with a descent-into-madness style narrative. Underneath, this film dives headfirst into issues that many other films just won’t touch or doesn’t examine closely enough. The story really centers around Mary and her difficulty in dealing with loss and grief at a time when most mothers are happily setting into their new roles. There may or may not be an entity trying to devour baby Adam, but the real horror is in Mary’s dealing with her postpartum psychosis.
According to Postpartum.net, postpartum psychosis is related to, but much less common than, postpartum depression. Where postpartum depression is often characterized by anxiety and feeling down, signs of postpartum psychosis include hallucinations and/or delusions, paranoia, feeling irritated, inability to sleep, and rapid mood swings (among other symptoms). While it’s important to note that most people in real life who experience postpartum psychosis do not go on to hurt themselves or anyone else, there is apparently a possibility that harm could be done while not thinking rationally.
Each of the boxes for these symptoms can be checked off throughout the movie. There is obviously the possibility that the baby-eating demon woman is simply a hallucination; the voices commanding a baby be sacrificed could certainly be delusions. However, some of the less obvious symptoms listed are also depicted in Still/Born.
For instance, Mary seems never to sleep and is always up and walking around or lying in bed, staring wide-eyed at a vent in her ceiling. Additionally, during a scene where she is happily video-chatting with her mother, Mary screams with outright fury at Adam to “shut the fuck up” before cheerily turning back to the computer and continuing with her conversation. Later, she becomes intensely paranoid that her husband is cheating on her with a neighbor, despite being presented with overwhelming evidence proving he isn’t. Lastly, Mary appears to be quite stressed and unkempt for much of the film, but at one point she flips into 1950s housewife mode, looking and dressing the part. Such a stark, unexpected change in Mary’s personality is eery, especially when she looks and sounds like she needs a good, long nap or shower (or both) for the better part of the movie.
Generally, the acting in this film is very good, but Christie Burke is the clear standout. She somehow manages to make a lot of small, forgettable incidences seem minute until just the right moment when they all clamber together and tower over her character, exacerbating how tiny she is compared to the forces working against her. Burke plays unstable and terrified very well. She has this awesome ability to widen her eyes in seemingly genuine shock and horror, evoking the most memorable images of Rosemary Woodhouse and inviting the audience to take delight in their fears.
Most impressive of all is Burke’s ability to carry much of the film on her own shoulders, often portraying what appears to be true sadness. There are tiny moments throughout the film wherein Mary just can’t do anything right when it comes to Adam and she appears to be defeated. One instance is when Mary is trying to breast-feed Adam but he won’t latch onto her. She grows exasperated as Jack repeatedly suggests she just feed Adam via bottle before finally taking the baby himself. The infant immediately begins to eat from the bottle Jack gives him. Mary looks completely grief-stricken, solemnly staring ahead. This is a throw-away moment which could have easily been forgotten from one scene to the next, but Burke’s performance elevates the material and makes the scene memorable.
Burke makes the audience invest in and cheer for her character, despite Mary’s questionable moral code and unreliable sense of reality, when they otherwise might not have if the role were in the hands of someone who didn’t match Burke’s skill level. With Burke as our lead, it’s both heart-wrenching and fascinating to watch Mary force herself to fit the image of the perfect stay-at-home mother when she might not be prepared for, or interested in, taking on such challenges or responsibilities – all while dealing with loss, a mental break, and something unearthly.
Also impressive was Still/Born’s excellent cinematography. Sweeping aerial shots of the couple’s beautiful town and its lakefront houses combine with perfectly symmetrical frames to produce a very aesthetically pleasing film. Coloring, lighting, and shadows are used to create an effectively creepy atmosphere in an otherwise beautiful home. Additionally, the many wide-angle shots framing Mary work to dwarf her, again hammering home that she is no match for the stressors she faces.
In fairness, Still/Born is not without its flaws. There are a few scares that are so clearly telegraphed that it takes away from the fun. Had these moments come from nowhere, they would have taken the film to the next level. Additionally, there are some laughable choices made within the script. For instance, after suffering an alleged psychotic break during which Mary almost kills Adam, Jack is obviously extremely worried and angry. Holding back tears, he tells the disoriented Mary that she almost killed their son. Not long after, he presents her with tickets for flights to Hawaii – an absurd reaction to have in this situation. Later on, Mary, clad only in a patient gown, supposedly runs from her hospital room all the way to their home. Thankfully, the rest of the film is intriguing and scary enough that viewers will forgive these less plausible moments.
Still/Born is bold, even for a horror film, not only because it explores postpartum psychosis, but also in its decision to base an entire movie on infanticide and to depict newborns in peril as frequently as it does. There is one shot so shocking that, although it’s only visible for a moment, it will be too disturbing for more sensitive viewers. Unlike similar films, such as The Babadook or Rosemary’s Baby, Still/Born does not back away from showing children in danger. Rather, it almost gleefully takes delight in watching the audience squirm. Somehow, the film manages never to go too far, always reeling it in before the audience can become offended and turn.
For filmgoers on the lookout for movies which push the envelope, Still/Born gets the job done. This film has many layers and underlying themes to consider, but remains a thrilling, simple good time throughout – without any sort of pretentiousness. Artfully crafted, dark, and downright freaky, Still/Born is a bonafide horror movie worthy of attention.