theunborndvd

I kind of stopped watching horror pictures at some point in the mid-1980’s, mostly because they became so different from the horror movies I loved as a kid.

Having cut my teeth on the Hammer Studio films of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Era and the Shock Theater oeuvre of 50’s and 60’s chillers, I spent many a late night cringing in terror at those gruesome Gothic-tinged offerings in front of a old black and white set in my room.

Sure, they were cheesy, and most of them don’t hold up today. But they were perfect for the sensibilities of a kid; with their overblown acting, simply drawn characters and ponderous plot machinations. The low budgets, stodgy public mores and the primitive state of special effects at the time kept them from being too graphic or showing a lot of the various monsters, so the filmmakers learned to do without all the intense visuals contemporary horror films rely on. It was all about what you didn’t see with those movies that made them so chilling, the idea of the monster. This was also perfect for the fertile mind and ability to suspend disbelief of a child. The details you filled in with your imagination were scarier that any amount of fake blood or monster costume could possibly be.

The more existentialist horror films of the late 60’s and early 70’s also understood the “less is more” concept. Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Burnt Offerings (1976) spared the gore and effects, but laid on the atmosphere and the feeling of imminent doom. Even The Exorcist (1973), lauded (and condemned) at the time for its intense and graphic special effects, was mostly about the build-up.

But the success of Friday The 13th (1980) (and the boatloads of cash the sequels pulled in) resulted in a new formula and paradigm in horror films:  A bunch of obnoxious stupid people (often teens) are rapidly killed off in gruesome and graphic fashion by a vicious and sadistic (yet often oddly charismatic) character who has supernatural powers and/or inhuman strength and abilities. The “Slasher Film” became the norm, and this paradigm shift caused me to bail out of the horror genre. I didn’t stop watching horror films altogether, but I definitely backed off and let the genre “see other people.”

Now, I’m a huge fan of clueless people being killed (I’d like the idea to become public policy, in fact), but when everyone in the entire film is annoying and stupid it really destroys the drama. You can’t buy into the movie if you don’t really care if anybody lives. I’m also not afraid of a little gore, but once the buckets of blood start flowing there’s really nowhere else to go and the movie can’t build any suspense. And since you know the least abrasive and dim witted people are going to be the last ones killed or will vanquish the homicidal slasherbeing (at least until they churn out the next one)– Why bother to stick around?

It isn’t like the earlier movies didn’t follow formulas or have repugnant characters or let the blood flow on occasion; but they didn’t always use the same formula or make everyone odious, and they at least attempted to build some sort of suspense before hauling out the red corn syrup.

This brings me to The Unborn, which was just released on DVD. [Good Lord. Over 500 words before I even mention the movie at hand! I’m already turning into Jonathan Rosenbaum. Somebody stab me with a giant knife or something!]

The Unborn definitely isn’t bereft of formula or cliche (especially the “preternaturally hot female protagonist who spends inordinate amounts of time in her underwear”), it has its moments of semi-graphic violence (especially towards the end), and it certainly throws down a fancy visual effect or two; but I found myself buying into the movie in a way that I haven’t since I was a little sprout all huddled in front of the TV in my room.

The main thing that made The Unborn remind me of those bygone days was that it attempted to create a little drama before trotting out the sound and fury. Although it turns on the trippy suspense at the get go with a creepy dream sequence, it gives the audience time to get acquainted with the characters and generates some dread and anticipation before totally going for the throat.

What’s more, the aforementioned characters aren’t completely shallow, brain dead idiots. Not that they’re little Mother Theresas or extremely deep, but they seem to possess a thought or two, and (most important) you aren’t rooting for them to all die 10 minutes into the film.

The film was written and directed by David S. Goyer, who is most known for writing the scripts for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as the three Blade films. Jane Alderman [featured in Hollywood On Lake Michigan], who helped cast the film, told me that Goyer did not like to even use the term “horror movie.”

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, so I’ll merely say that it involves a young woman (actress/model Odette Yustman) who battles against an evil spirit who wishes to possess her. A few of the plot elements are lifted from other horror films, but they’re reassembled very well, and the acting is as good as you’ll find in this genre; especially the cameos from James Remar (as the girl’s father), Idris Elba (who played Stringer Bell on the unfreakingbelievably excellent HBO Series, The Wire), and Gary Oldman (yes, the Gary Oldman) as a helpful Rabbi.

Which leads me to another aspect I enjoyed about The Unborn; the fact that the main character and her family are Jewish (albeit non-practicing) and the central “myth” (for want of a better word) of the film is based around the Kaballa and Hebrew mysticism. That’s right, a Jewish exorcism movie. Now this hardly constitutes some sort of B’nai B’rith cultural watershed moment, but it was a nice change of pace not to have to hear all the shopworn Book of Revelations-type cliches for once. Plus, why should us goyim always have all the fun battling insensate supernatural evil? There’s an interesting moment where Yustman’s character mentions that she doesn’t want “a Christian exorcism,” only to be reminded that “this sort of being predates Christianity or Judaism, perhaps even humanity.”

Of course, all of the things that I liked about the film (its leisurely pacing, the relative lack of graphic violence and tons of over the top special effects) are anathema to youngsters who cut their teeth on post-Friday The 13th fare. Therefore, although The Unborn did pretty well at the box office, if you go to any of the online reviewing sites (such as Rotten Tomatoes or the IMDB) you’ll find post after post about how completely awful this film is (many “real” critics dumped on it as well).

And I will grant you, this isn’t a piece of great cinema; but if you’re yearning for something slightly reminiscent of the kind of horror film they made back before the dawn of the Slasher Era, something that will give you some plot development along with your minimum RDA of gore and mayhem, then definitely rent The Unborn.