The first thing you’ll notice about David S. Goyer’s The Unborn is that it’s a lot funnier than this week’s purported comedy release, Bride Wars. The second thing is that this wasn’t the idea. Even with the unintentional humor, it’s still not very good. I can’t say that I hated the movie, but I lay this mostly at the feet of the fact that I saw it with a theater full of teenagers, who screamed, laughed and shouted on cue in a manner that would have warmed Mr. Pavlov’s cockles. That’s the sort of thing that will turn cheesy horror into an enjoyable 87 minutes of moviegoing experience, while having nothing to do with the actual quality of the film. I cannot imagine what a tough slog this might have been in any other setting—nor do I plan on finding out.
What we have here is your basic possession/exorcism story. The title—apparently affixed after the fact—is rendered all but meaningless by the events of the movie, since the focus of the story isn’t so much about an unborn twin who died in the womb, while wanting “to be born now” (as the trailer suggests), as it is about a “dybbuk” looking for a body to possess. What’s a dybbuk, you ask? Well, in Jewish folklore, it’s a kind of wandering spirit of a dead person that inhabits a living person’s body with malicious intent. The concept is at the center of a famous Jewish play by Sholom Ansky called, appropriately, The Dybbuk, which was in turn made into a famous 1937 Yiddish-language Polish film of the same title. (It’s one of those movies you read about, but seldom encounter anyone who’s actually seen it.)
Now, the dybbuk concept might have been an interesting, fresh twist to the horror genre. However, Goyer apparently couldn’t leave well enough alone. He so monkeyed around with the idea that it nearly gets lost in the shuffle, resulting in a very strange mix indeed. His dybbuk becomes some kind of generic ancient demon. Medical experiments at Auschwitz get tossed in. The dybbuk’s fixation on the family in question never makes a lot of sense, and Christianity—in the form of Idris Elba as an Episcopal priest—gets dragged in without any discernible point. All of it leads to an exorcism with a seemingly high-mortality rate (why the deaths in this film are so casually accepted by the authorities is never addressed) and one of those “Oh God, no, not a setup for a sequel!” tag scenes. (There’s an irony here, since Ansky’s play was criticized for being a jumbled patchwork of bits of folklore and mysticism.)
The overall plot is one of those messes that requires heroine Casey Beldon’s (Odette Yustman, Cloverfield) father (James Remar, TV’s Dexter) to conveniently—and inexplicably—disappear from the proceedings once he’s imparted all the information necessary to the plot, leaving Casey on her own to deal with the various inconveniences of dybbuk possession. (This also, of course, provides more opportunities for her to parade around in the panties she apparently puts on with a Seal-a-Meal.) It hardly matters since the film’s primary raison d’être is a series of shock effects involving creepy kids (two years ago, Cameron Bright would’ve had a piece of this, but now we get Atticus Shaffer and Ethan Cutkosky), dogs with upside-down heads and a CGI-powered geriatric variant on Linda Blair’s Exorcist crab walk.
There are some atmospheric scenes and flourishes of style—not to mention a good performance from Jane Alexander, and a gamely noteworthy one from Gary Oldman as the rabbi exorcist, simply because he never bursts out laughing (and he blows a mean shofar). Plus, there’s the educational value of finding out whether or not Never Back Down‘s Cam Gigandet can take on a dybbuk-possessed Idris Elba without ending up “looking like a bitch.” I leave it to you whether or not such things matter—and whether or not the attendant unintentional amusement is sufficient compensation for your hard-earned shekels. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images, thematic material and language, including some sexual references.