Cinema Knife Fight: THE UNBORN
by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(LL SOARES is jogging across a bridge when he sees a woolen mitten on the ground. He stops and turns around, to see a scary-looking zombie kid with glowing eyes – wearing just one mitten.
ZOMBIE KID: Gumby wants to be born now!
(LS blinks, and suddenly the little zombie kid has an upside down Gumby head on his shoulders.)
GUMBY: I’m Gumby, dammit!
(LS wakes up screaming and MICHAEL ARRUDA enters the room.)
MA: What’s the matter? Did you have a nightmare?
LS: Yes. I dreamt I was forced to watch THE UNBORN a second time.
MA: Hmm, there’s a twisted idea! Aw, you were just dreaming. Serves you right for eating pickles before bedtime. (glances at empty pickle jar on bed stand).
LS: I sure am glad that wasn’t real. Seeing that movie once was bad enough!
MA: Well, it’s not over yet. Now we’ve got to review it.
LS: Do we have to?
MA (patriotic music begins to play): Yes, it’s our duty as critics to spare others the pain of sitting through a bad movie.
LS: Well, if you put it that way—.
THE UNBORN (2009) is the story of Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman), a pretty college girl who looks kind of like Jennifer Connelly.
MA: We saw Yustman in last year’s hit, and my pick for the best horror flick of 2008, CLOVERFIELD. While she was good in CLOVERFIELD with limited screen time, here as the lead in THE UNBORN, she’s not as good.
LS: For some inexplicable reason, Casey starts having very vivid dreams about a spooky little boy who looks a lot like those evil ghost kids we’ve seen in lots of American remakes of Japanese horror movies (like THE GRUDGE). She also starts seeing the boy in real life, although no one will believe her. Is she losing her mind, or is something more sinister afoot?
As Casey starts investigating things, she finds out that she was a twin in utero, but that her umbilical cord was wrapped around her twin brother’s neck, so that he died before he could be born. Her parents even had a nickname for the unborn boy – prepare yourself – “Jumby” !
MA: Who’s the genius who thought that one up? Jumby! Hmm, I’ve got it! We’ll call the ghost Jumby! All I could picture was a giant oversized baby a la Baby Huey. Does anyone out there remember Baby Huey?
LS: There are lots of other weird things going on. The boy next door that she babysits starts acting weird and terrorizing people. And Casey’s mother, who killed herself in a mental hospital, also starts appearing to her daughter. What the hell is going on?
For answers, Casey has to go to a nursing home to talk to an old woman named Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) who was also a twin, and who survived the Holocaust. She has a strange tale to tell including twins, Nazi experiments, and a dybbuk – an evil spirit from Jewish folklore that seeks to take over the bodies of the living.
Casey is convinced she is being tormented by a dybbuk that had originally wanted to possess the body of Jumby, so she goes to see Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman) to perform an exorcism on her and banish the dybbuk to the nether realms from whence it came.
MA: Excuse me, but what in the world was Gary Oldman doing in this movie?
LS: I don’t know, but man, is he too good an actor for this crap!
Along the way, there are spirits who use mirrors as doorways, dogs running around with their heads twisted upside down (and one old man who is similarly mutilated), and possessed people whose mouths grow ten times too big with lots of sharp teeth.
(Keifer Sutherland’s face appears in a mirror on the wall)
KEIFER: Hey, remember me? I was in the movie MIRRORS last year and we already covered the evil spirits in the mirror thing!
LS: Shut up or I’ll get out the Windex, Jack Bauer!
There are some interesting ideas here, since there really were Nazi experiments done on twins in concentration camps, and the whole Jewish demons thing is a fresh angle on a tired formula, but in the end, the movie is poorly executed and acted. The result is an unscary mess that just seemed incredibly dumb by the time the end credits started to roll.
MA: Yes, I thought the whole angle with the Jewish demons and exorcism was interesting in an intellectual sort of way. You know, “yeah, Jewish demons, that’s different, creative, neat.” But, on its own, the concept certainly wasn’t enough to save this movie. I would have liked it more had the whole Jewish angle been a bigger part of the story. Give us some background, some insights into Jewish culture and history. Now that would have been interesting! As it stands now, it’s like someone said “let’s make the exorcism/demons related to Judaism rather than Christianity,” and then they just plugged it into the story without reason.
LS: Yeah, the idea sounds more interesting than it is. There’s also a part that makes no sense to me. Casey goes to a library to read up on Jewish mysticism and the librarian brings her an ancient copy of the Kabbalah in Hebrew. It is obviously a very rare book and the librarian makes a big deal about Casey being careful with it. A few scenes later, Casey brings the book to Rabbi Sendak to translate. Did the library let Casey take such a rare book off the premises? And if she stole it, which would make more sense, wouldn’t the librarian have kept a watchful eye on her to prevent that (the book’s pretty big, too)? That just seemed silly to me.
(MADONNA appears in another mirror)
MADONNA: Did someone mention the Kaballah?
LS: Go lift some weights, you has-been.
MA: Hey, I like Madonna!
LS: Also, the men in Casey’s life sure seem to disappear a lot. First of all, there’s her father Gordon (James Remar, who plays Dexter’s father on DEXTER), who seems to always be away on business trips (we hardly ever see him at home – and for the most part Casey appears to live alone). Then there’s her boyfriend Mark (Cam Gigandet), who seems supportive at first, then disappears for about a third of the movie before he comes back at the end to help with the final exorcism. Where was he all that time?
MA: You’re right, but since they were both unbearably boring, I hardly missed them!
LS: The rest of the cast includes Meagan Good as Romy, Casey’s annoying best friend who constantly has answers about any dumb superstitions that pop up. And there’s even an appearance by your old pal Idris Elba (from last year’s PROM NIGHT remake) as an Episcopal priest who’s a close friend of the rabbi’s.
MA: Way to go Idris Elba! My new favorite horror film actor! Well, he’s not quite there yet, but I’ve seen him in 3 recent horror movies (THE REAPING with Hillary Swank, PROM NIGHT (2008), and this one), and he’s been great in all three. However, he’s only in THE UNBORN for a few minutes, all towards the end, so he doesn’t really do a lot here.
LS: All in all, there are some good ideas here, and it’s interesting to see the whole exorcism storyline from the point of view of Judaism instead of the usual Christian take on things. But the movie is pretty awful.
I expected more from David Goyer, who wrote and directed this movie. He also wrote the screenplays to movies like BLADE II, BLADE: TRINITY, and BATMAN BEGINS, as well as the story for THE DARK KNIGHT. Clearly, the guy has some talent. But it’s not very evident from THE UNBORN.
MA: That’s certainly an understatement. The guy who wrote BATMAN BEGINS and the story for THE DARK KNIGHT wrote this? Hard to believe. Of course, truth be told, those of us who write know firsthand you don’t write great stuff every time. So, no hard feelings, Mr. Goyer!
LS: Everyone has an off day, but this is a lot worse than that. What did you think of this one, Michael?
MA: As you probably already have guessed, I didn’t like THE UNBORN either. I thought it was uninspiring, unimaginative, and unnecessary. Didn’t we just see this same kind of plot in MIRRORS? Which was another movie I didn’t like.
LS: I liked it a lot more than this one.
MA: THE UNBORN had too many similarities to MIRRORS for my liking, right down to a scene where Casey smashes all the mirrors in her house to destroy the demon’s doorways. By the way, couldn’t she just hide the mirrors some place, or throw them away? Is it really necessary to smash them to bits?
I found the first third of THE UNBORN very boring. It was slow and plodding, with uninteresting characters with uninteresting conflicts. And I really wish someone would write in a new rule for horror screenwriters to exclude forever the slow moving scene of a single person moving slowly through a hallway or down a staircase with scary music playing while we wait, wait, wait, and wait, for something to happen, something we all know is going to be scary because otherwise why would we wait, wait, wait, and wait, just for someone to discover that everything was all right? These scenes are not scary, period. People start text messaging during these scenes, okay? They’re boring!
LS: That’s another thing that pisses me off. Every time I go to see a PG-13 horror movie on opening night to review it, the audience is full of teenagers yakking and text messaging. I can usually block them out if a movie is at least good. But this one was a nightmare.
MA: I don’t mind the text messaging, but yakking by people of any age is annoying.
Anyway, the plot grew on me as soon as the concept of the ghost of an unborn twin was introduced. I thought this had potential. There have been plenty of child ghosts in the movies, but not a whole lot of ghosts of children who hadn’t even been born! However, my interest was short-lived, because this interesting plot point was ruined when we learn that the menace isn’t the ghost of the dead twin after all, but another spirit or demon that is using the dead twin to haunt the world.
Which brings me to another point: why do demons want to haunt the world? Don’t they have something better to do? If haunting the world is their only reason for being, they must have boring lives. You’d think with an eternity of time to make plans, they’d come up with something better!
As soon as the movie introduces this plot element of the demon seeking to enter the world through others and using mirrors to do it, it really begins to resemble the recent movie MIRRORS, and I didn’t like this at all.
I really like Gary Oldman a lot, and as I already said, I like Idris Elba too, but both these actors were not in the movie very much, and even when they were, they weren’t given a whole lot to do. Now, had this movie made these two actors and their characters co-leads with Odette Yustman, then we would have had a movie! Yustman’s character wasn’t deep enough to carry a movie, nor was her acting captivating enough, but throw in Oldman and Elba, with a background story for each of them, and then we might have had something compelling.
I also had a problem with the climactic exorcism scene. There were too many dramatic effects, which made me aware that I was watching a Hollywood movie rather than a scary exorcism. These effects diminish any frightful realism this scene might have had.
LS: The big finale is just a mess, too, with one character after another getting possessed by the dybbuk. It’s just not satisfying at all.
MA: I agree. The last sequence is phony and forced. It’s like tag, you’re it! Your turn to be the dybbuk!
THE UNBORN is filled with bizarre and supposedly scary images (like the dog with the upside down head, and the mutilated old man – which is a rip-off of a far scarier scene originally cut from THE EXORCIST and now since restored with Linda Blair in a similar contorted position running down the stairs-) that, strangely enough, aren’t all that scary. In fact, they actually generated chuckles from the people in the audience with me. I think part of the reason for this was the special effects weren’t all that good. I thought they looked rather fake, actually.
LS: Where I saw it, the audience was laughing their collective asses off during those scenes, too.
MA: So, this is one of those rare occasions where we seem to agree wholeheartedly. THE UNBORN is unbearable. So, horror fans, don’t waste your time or money. Skip it.
THE UNBORN was a disappointing way to start 2009.
LS: Okay, I’ve had enough of this talking about a bad movie. I’m going back to sleep. Would you mind getting me another jar of pickles?
MA: Do you really think that’s such a good id— (suddenly imagines LS screaming as a zombie kid attacks him with a mirror in one hand and a photo of Keifer Sutherland in the other) (smirks). Sure, I’ll get you more. I’ll be right back.
(MA opens door to exit and is suddenly confronted by a giant cartoon chicken wearing a diaper with an upside down head).
CHICKEN: Huey wants to be born now!
(MA screams and slams door.)
MA: On second thought, you can get your own pickles!
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 1/11/2009)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares