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The Unborn
Directed by David S. Goyer
Written by David S. Goyer
The Unborn The Unborn
Principal Cast
Odette Yustman -- Casey Beldon
Gary Oldman -- Rabbi Sendak
Cam Gigandet -- Mark Hardigan
Meagan Good -- Romy
Idris Elba -- Arthur Wyndham
Jane Alexander -- Sofi Kozma
Atticus Shaffer -- Matty Newton
James Remar -- Gordon Beldon
Carla Gugino -- Janet Beldon
The Unborn
The Unborn
The Unborn
The Unborn
A review by David Newbert

What the hell is an actress like Carla Gugino doing in this movie? I can make sense of Gary Oldman's appearance: he probably took his minor role as a favor to director David S. Goyer, just so they could use clips of his performance in the trailers. Smart marketing, that. But Ms. Gugino (Sin City, Watchmen) has a grand total of about three scenes, one line, and less than thirty seconds of screen time. A well-known, well-liked actress so woefully under-used: to whom did she owe a favor?

Writer and director David S. Goyer -- best known for his scriptwork on the last two Batman movies and the Blade Trilogy -- has stuffed The Unborn with one horror movie cliché after another, making it one of the most generic flicks I've seen in recent years. It also reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's definition of a blivit: two pounds of shit in a one pound bag. The clichés include a pale, revenant child (The Grudge, The Ring, A Tale of Two Sisters, or insert your favorite J-Horror film here); a dead twin (The Other); a gratuitous insect attack; long-hidden, grainy film footage; the use of mirrors as spiritual doorways (Mirrors, Prince of Darkness); obvious dream sequences, including one to open the film, naturally; head-twisting right out of The Exorcist, not once but twice; a spunky female lead who walks around in her underwear a lot (okay, I'm not really complaining about that part); cute friends who make convenient victims; long-held secrets that drive people crazy; and so forth. You could still make a good movie out of that tapestry, but it takes more than what we have here. The Unborn understands the notes, but it doesn't hear the music.

The plot goes like this: Casey Beldon (played by Odette Yustman, a Megan Fox-look-alike who can be seen in Cloverfield, another turkey), is a Chicago University student whose mother (Carla Gugino) committed suicide years earlier. Casey today is suffering from visions of a) a spooky little kid who keeps popping up out of nowhere, and b) her mother's death in a psycho ward. A trip to the doctor shows that one of Casey's eyes appears to be changing colour, and this leads to the revelation that she had a twin who died in utero, posthumously named Jumby. (Now seriously, what numbnuts would name their child Jumby? The parents probably figured that, since he was already dead, he wouldn't have to worry about being beaten to a pulp on the playground.) After a quick trip to her attic and some detective work, Casey discovers that the crazy old woman she met in a rest home is actually her grandma Sofi (Jane Alexander), a Holocaust survivor, and that our re-appearing ghost-boy is Casey's great uncle Barto. It seems that following his death at the hands of Auschwitz doctors, Barto's body was possessed by a dybbuk, a Jewish demon looking to get into our world by taking over the body of a twin -- although, as we're schooled later, apparently anyone's body will do in a pinch. Sofi defeated its first attempt in Auschwitz, but now it's using the spirit of Casey's dead twin to enter our world once again. Casey decides her only hope is a Jewish exorcism, performed by Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman). You can imagine how well that's going to turn out.

Despite having worked on several hit screenplays, Goyer still has a tin ear for dialogue. Witness, for instance, the line where Sofi tells her granddaughter that she'll have to slay the demon herself: "It has fallen on you to finish what began in Auschwitz." Did nobody tell Goyer just how wrong that sounded? Or is it that the current generation in Hollywood is so historically ignorant that it never occurred to anyone? At least Goyer's script is clever enough to name the rabbi after the author of Where the Wild Things Are. But it's cluttered with so much unnecessary material that one never feels a sense of the imagination at work. It's just labored and clunky, poorly paced and convoluted.

It's also heavily dependent upon the horror movie staple technique of the jump scare. Even a child can pull this off: you just wait until your friend is passing by unawares and yell "Boo!" Pretty simple, right? And it used to work pretty well, when I was eight. Good horror flicks use it a couple of times, tops; The Unborn returns to that well again and again.

The movie looks terrific, even if that same look is as much a cliché as the rest of the movie. Cinematographer Jim Hawkinson (who also shot The Hitcher in 2007) creates a solid image, but one with the computer-assisted desaturation that has become the standard go-to "look" for horror movies today. Push the button on your console marked "Horror," and your movie can also look like Underworld, Se7en, Saw, Eden Lake, Autopsy, The Ring, The Orphanage, Mirrors, The Eye, Wrong Turn, Frontier(s), High Tension, Pulse, Vacancy, The Broken, and on and on. But at least the skin tones look fine.

If I'm going to praise one thing about this movie, it's the choice to make Ms. Yustman's scantily clad derrière the focus of the final poster. That was near genius. Call it exploitation if you like (and you would be correct), but it's the movie's real star turn.

(The disc, in both its DVD and Blu-Ray incarnations, is available with the unrated version included, which is only one lousy minute longer than the theatrical release. I don't consider this to be a bonus. The only extra the disc has is a useless collection of deleted scenes. You're better off skipping it.)

Copyright © 2009 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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