David S. Goyer has been quietly building his career in the film industry. Though so far the direction of Blade Trinity and The Invisible mark his only decent attempts at taking the helm, his writing credits on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight surely mark him out as someone who is showing himself to be capable of understanding the necessities of film-making and the importance of the story. It certainly indicates an upward trend in recent years from his writing on the Hasslehoff starring Nick Fury: Agent of Shield. As always the argument can be made that when one writes for a director or directs another man's words, the inevitable result will be a diluted vision. Thus it must surely be the clearest display of his potential talents to view The Unborn, as he both wrote and directed the feature.
Brought to us by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company, the unusual point to note is that this is an entirely new story. With the company best known for retreading old ground such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005) and The Hitcher (2007) remakes amongst others, it marks a clear departure from previous form. Critics would argue that their only intention was to rehash in order to make a safe buck - playing on horror fans' need to see what was made of their beloved classics. So it is that The Unborn not only carries the weight of Goyer's artistic vision but also to some extent the credibility of Platinum Dune's intentions in the field of horror. Are they able to make something new between them?
The Unborn tells the story of Casey Beldon, an affluent attractive college student who babysits to make some extra cash. She is also having nightmares that consist of seeing a child's glove, weird dogs and other such troublesome imagery that I won't spoil - in short this is a ghoul movie. The casting of Odette Yustman (Cloverfield) is fairly sound, even though she may be unfamiliar to some, the central story is safe territory to say the least and she was never likely to be called upon to flex any true acting abilities she may have. Similarly, the peripheral cast all come across as your average teen chiller/slasher fare, with nary an ugly face in sight. The casting of Cam Gigandet (Never Back Down - if you haven't seen it, think Fight Club crossed with The O.C. minus any form of intelligent social commentary) is also firmly in the category of unsurprising, given that his character has zero personality and basically is the human personification of beige with a trendy haircut. The final central party to what would become our triumvirate of scared youngsters is the obvious inclusion of a black character, in this instance the best friend played by Meagan Good (Saw V), who most will spend the movie's duration watching and wondering if she'll survive to see the end credits. Make no mistake, this is very much a genre piece. All the figures are archetypes of modern horror/slasher films, complete with a vocabulary that hinges on the overuse of such terms as “like” and “thing”, also being interspersed with callous ease such phrases as “retarded” and “old-timers” to refer to someone with alzheimers. Traditionally, these films have painted the female screamer as a chaste figure, unlike her promiscuous friends who are sure to die fairly promptly. Here though, the opening half hour has her in her pants, in the shower and bedding her boyfriend, so I suppose this isn't all that traditional in its approach to the genre.
Filling out the cast are Idris Elba (from TV's The Wire) in a role I can only assume he took to raise his profile, Carla Gugino (Sin City) and Gary Oldman who I'm hoping had a mortgage to pay or has a similar project to Nil By Mouth in the pipelines that needs funding as per his appearance in Air Force One. Oldman as a rabbi is mainly used to read aloud from an ancient text which luck would have it was at the nearest library - given that my local library doesn't even have the latest Dick Francis it was an incredible stroke of luck that they should have a tome about exorcising Jewish demons. Oldman, Gugino and Elba are all criminally underused, with Elba appearing only in the final furlong of the feature and Gugino with a “blink and you'll miss her” appearance. Oldman's character brings us to the second significant departure from established genre lore. Traditionally, those films that feature possession and suchlike as their central theme have tended to focus on the catholic rites of exorcism and Christianity as a whole. The Unborn deviates by seeking to combine Jewish superstition and demons. On the face of it, this could have been an entirely welcome sidestep from a road that has been trodden many times before and had its most significant example not only early on for the genre- The Exorcist - but one that still hasn't been bettered. The problem is that though the religion has changed, the clichés haven't. Just about every hackneyed shot and copied trick is crammed into this collection of ideas gleaned from better chillers. Everyone has a torch to hand when the lights go out (even an old lady in a nursing home) and when hiding, one kind soul even goes so far as to help out the director by holding said flashlight under her chin as children delight in doing on Halloween. Mirrors have the usual effect of showing something for an instant, having characters question what they saw and then throwing something gruesome at them. Loud noises are constantly employed to make the viewer jump when truthfully there is little that is actually scary. The classic line “I think he's gone” will have people groaning at the predictability of what proceeds to occur and the old classic of our protagonist slowly approaching a figure with its head down, face obscured by long hair has only one inevitable conclusion . Throw in a cine film of the mental institution Casey's mother was in that has no logical explanation for existing and a 360 degree head twist and you have the final piece of a horror film painted by numbers. Take one part The Exorcist (minus the religiosity and genuine soul searching), add in the dialogue of I Know What You Did Last Summer, a sprinkle of Ringu (without the scares) and a healthy dose of Apple Mac product placement, top it all off with loud noises and a few camera effects and you have The Unborn.
I would dearly love to have found this to be nothing more than a popcorn-munching genre piece but unfortunately it doesn't even hit those standards. It has the feel of a film made by a focus group and the only thing I found vaguely scary was that someone thought it a good idea to invoke the memory of the Holocaust, Auschwitz and Dr Mengele in order to add weight to a story that is painfully thin. If this air of cynicism was ever in doubt, a quick look at the DVD/Blu-ray cover showing Yustman's bum taking centre stage merely reaffirmed my feeling of misgivings.
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