The Unborn

Movie Information

The Story: A girl finds herself plagued by strange visions and learns that an evil entity is determined to take over her body. The Lowdown: An interesting concept falls prey to stock exorcism shenanigans, unintended humor and laughably enjoyable shock effects.
Genre: Exorcism Horror
Director: David S. Goyer (The Invisible)
Starring: Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Meagan Good, Cam Gigandet, Jane Alexander, Idris Elba, Carla Gugino
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

2 thoughts on “The Unborn

  1. halcb

    Thanks for the ‘head’s up’ on this one, Ken. Think I’ll pass.

    It’s really too bad, because the whole dybbuk-Auschwitz theme DOES deserve to be explored artistically through film.


  2. Ken Hanke

    the whole dybbuk-Auschwitz theme DOES deserve to be explored artistically through film.

    I have a hunch this may be the pinnacle of that particular sub-genre.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.