Universal // 2009 // 129 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // July 10th, 2009
Evil will do anything to live. Unfortunately, that includes making crappy movies.
We cut horror movies a little slack. We overlook plots that don't quite make sense, characters that do the occasional stupid thing...all we ask in return is a few good scares, a feeling of visceral terror, maybe some blood and violence. But please, don't treat us as though we are as stupid as those teenagers who, knowing that a killer is on the loose, say "I'll be right back" and march off to their doom. Which brings us to The Unborn. Writer/director David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) loads a derivative possession film with little more than cheap shocks and slick production values. Universal brings us an unrated version of The Unborn, but we shan't be thanking them.
Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman, Cloverfield) has already dealt with a lot; when she was little, her mother went insane and killed herself. Now, weird things start happening to Casey. She keeps seeing this Grudged-out little boy in unexpected places -- in a park, in a bar, and stuffed into her medicine cabinet. While Casey babysits for a neighbor, the four year-old ominously tells her "Jumby is ready to be born now," right before smacking her upside the head. Her friends are skeptical, until one of Casey's eyes starts to change color. A doctor runs some tests, mentioning that the condition is sometimes associated with twins. Casey, an only child, gets her father to confess -- she had a twin brother who died in the womb, when Casey's umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck. "Jumby" is the nickname they had picked for the boy. Casey is convinced the ghost of her dead brother is seeking vengeance ("Jumby"? Hell, I'd be pissed, too).
Casey returns to the hospital where her mother died to look for clues, and encounters Sophia (Jane Alexander, The Great White Hope), an old woman who somehow knows a lot about Casey's family. She tells Casey the spirit is not her brother, but a dybbuk, a malicious spirit seeking to be reborn; the same spirit that drove Casey's mother insane. Sophia sends Casey to Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix), who can perform an exorcism to banish the dybbuk.
There's just not a lot to commend The Unborn. The cheap Boo! moments are so plentiful they lose any effectiveness they might have had were they not telegraphed a mile away. The movie really falls apart, when we finally get the lowdown on the possessing spirit. Goyer makes things way more complicated than necessary, so we get flashbacks tracing the dybbuk back to the root of all evil: Nazis (swear to God). From there on, with every new plot point and added detail, the movie becomes more and more implausible. Keep a pillow handy at the very end. Once the final scene plays out, you'll be pounding your head against the wall, and you'll want to minimize brain and wall damage.
Of all the idiots in the movie, the biggest might be the dybbuk. Initially, the Rabbi is more than just a little skeptical of Casey's claims, and it's obvious that he's humoring her. So the spirit goes and tries to intimidate the Rabbi with a computer-generated show of supernatural force, thus proving its existence to the guy who can banish it. For all the backstory on the dybbuk, we are never really told what its powers and limitations are. This enables Goyer to grant the thing whatever powers are necessary to allow for the greatest carnage.
Pacing is a major problem. The weird stuff starts happening to Casey in the opening scene. At first, it seems to work, but all it really does is let Goyer cram in more weirdness, while ignoring niceties such as character development. Stock pretty lead, stock best friend, stock boyfriend, and so on. The first half of the movie manages to limp along, but the closer we get to the end, the more incoherent it becomes.
The Unrated version has a whopping one minute of extra footage, supposedly "too shocking for theaters." Whatever. There's really nothing in the Unrated cut that warrants an "R." The extra footage is not identified, but I've narrowed the possibilities to three shots, one of which is a shameless ripoff from The Exorcist. The PG-13 version is also included, but comparing the two versions is as appealing as shoving my arm down a garbage disposal.
Acting is almost (but not quite) adequate. A movie with as deliberate a pace as this requires the leading lady make a slow but steady progression from moderately well adjusted to batsh*t paranoia. Yustman has to carry the entire film and she just isn't up to the task. Jane Alexander does a fine job with a stock character, but I'm at a loss to explain Gary Oldman's presence. Presumably, he lost a lot of money to Goyer in poker games while filming The Dark Knight. It was either make this movie or have sex with barnyard animals. Looking back, Oldman probably wishes he had chosen differently. The rabbi's part is so criminally underwritten they could have used anyone.
Video is great. There are a lot of dark interiors and the textures are clear and sharp, supporting the gothic vibe. Audio is clear enough, but the 5.1 mix doesn't really do much with the back channels. The only extra is a handful of deleted scenes, none of which add anything to the proceedings.
The movie is practically dripping with gothic atmosphere and boasts good cinematography, though some shots are shamelessly cribbed from Christopher Nolan's Batman movies.
If they had kept things simple, everything might have worked out. Seriously, think about the emotional ramifications of being forced to exorcise the spirit of your twin -- that could be magnificent drama. Or posit the dybbuk has already been reborn in Casey and killed the brother in utero to keep the secret. Now, Jumby is seeking to rescue Casey from beyond the grave. I don't know how either would play out, but at least they'd be different. Instead, we get loads and loads of tired clichés and Nazis.
Guilty. The conclusion leaves the door open for a sequel. If you buy this
disc and they make a sequel as a result, I. Will. Find. You.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted scenes
* Official Site