I feel like it wouldn’t have taken much to make The Unborn much better. I don’t hate the movie – in fact I find it a pretty serviceable film with some nice atmosphere, some good scares and some actually great monster designs – but it’s hard not to watch it and wish that it had turned out at least a little differently.
Writer/director David Goyer comes up with stuff that’s fairly original. He’s treading some traditional ghost/exorcism territory, but there’s a heavy Jewish angle that makes it feel fresher. These Kabbalistic myths are just different enough from your standard Catholic theology to be fun. But these elements get held back too long, leaving the movie with a third act that feels like it comes from a different film.
Odette Yustman is a young girl who starts having some pretty creepy dreams, and discovers that one of her eyes has changed color. To cut to the chase it turns out that she had a twin in the womb, and while the kid never made it, he wants to get a chance at life now. But there’s a further wrinkle on the whole thing – which I won’t ruin – that brings in the Jewish mythology and ties the movie, surprisingly, to Nazi experiments at Auschwitz.
Yustman discovers that not only is she Jewish, which is probably a big shock, but that she’s the host for a dybbuk, an undead soul that can’t find it’s way off of this plane of reality. And it’s a mean, angry dybbuk. She turns to Rabbi Gary Oldman and Father Stringer Bell to help her exorcise this spirit.
That paragraph sketches a movie that isn’t exactly what we get in The Unborn. Goyer holds Oldman and Idris Elba back until the third act, leaving the first half of the movie to feel sort of like an echo of a Japanese scary kid ghost movie. The elements that make this film so interesting are backgrounded for most of the running time. And while Oldman is obviously great, Elba is an always magnetic presence and the stunning Yustman shows solid chops, everybody else in the movie comes in well under par.
This gives The Unborn the feeling of two Odette Yustman films fighting each other. One is a cheap jump scare teen horror film while the other is a more thoughtful, atmospheric and creepy movie. I wanted more of that second film. The Unborn works best not when it’s using mirror scares to get the girls in the audience to shriek but when it’s confronting us with unsettling imagery – monsters that are illogical and creepy. There’s a scene where Oldman confronts an angry dog whose head is on upside down that really works because the twisted dog looks so delightfully wrong. Another great scene has Yustman freaking out in a dance club bathroom while shit and giant insects clamor at her from behind the walls. These all work better than any number of scenes of a creepy little kid suddenly appearing and screaming.
The film also feels like it drops the thematic ball. Yustman’s character discovers a pretty surprising heritage, and while her religion isn’t obvious at the beginning of the film, I was under the impression that she didn’t know her grandmother and mother were Jewish. The dybbuk gets into her through that heritage,and yet there’s no examination of what it means to her. There’s also a medical horror aspect that never comes to the fore – this dybbuk is inside her like a cancer (or an unwanted fetus), and it’s even causing physical changes in her. There are primal fears here that could have been played up.
If you’re an abject horror nerd like I am and you’re excited to see movies with terrific practical effects, this film is worth your time. If you’re sixteen and looking for a good date film, this is probably worth your time as well. But unfortunately those are the only two groups for whom I can recommend the movie; The Unborn is, like its main character, at war with itself. Neither side wins.