Universal // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 17th, 2009
Jumby wants to be born now.
Writer-director David S. Goyer's (co-writer of Batman Begins) horror flick The Unborn tells the tale of a young woman tormented by a malevolent spirit from Jewish folklore called a dybbuk. Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman, Cloverfield) suffers bizarre nightmares and daytime visions of a creepy, corpse-like little boy who stares silently at her. The sudden onset of a change in the color of one her eyes causes her father to reveal that she had a twin brother who died at birth because Casey's umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. Casey's parents had nicknamed the boy Jumby and now his angry spirit is determined to be born (yes, according to this flick, the root of all evil is a one-time fetus named Jumby). Casey's nursing home visit to an eccentric old woman named Sofi (Jane Alexander, All the President's Men) who inexplicably turns out to be her grandmother, reveals that Josef Mengele's experiments on Sofi's twin brother created a predisposition for dead twin dybbuks in Casey's family. Or something like that. Casey's only hope for survival is to engage the services of ecumenical Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Episcopal priest Arthur Wyndham (Idris Elba, The Wire) to perform an exorcism and do away with Jumby once and for all.
One major benefit of having a writing credit on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is that you can get top-notch actors like Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino (as Casey's mother), Jane Alexander, and Idris Elba to join the cast of your schlocky horror movie. Too bad fine thespians have little power to make schlock less schlocky. When it landed in theaters in January of 2009, The Unborn was smacked around by critics like a piñata at a five-year-old's birthday party. It deserved the thrashing. Truth be told, the flick would be a step forward (albeit a forgettable one) if written and directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) or Uwe Bolle (Postal), but it's a major disappointment coming from Goyer, whose writing credits not only include Christopher Nolan's Batman flicks, but the science fiction cult classic Dark City. To be blunt, The Unborn just isn't up to snuff. The movie is like a superficial version of The Exorcist with the addition of the weakest stylistic elements of every lame J-Horror flick ever made, plus a pinch of 28 Days Later thrown into the climax for bad measure. Message to Hollywood: Dead-eyed ghostly children dressed in black haven't been frightening since 2003.
In the dybbuk, Goyer found an interesting and little-known (at least to me) piece of folklore around which to form his story, but doesn't seem to know what to do with it. The script is a mess of complex, dead-end exposition and credibility stretching coincidence. There is absolutely no explanation other than sloppy screenwriting for why Casey doesn't know that Sofi is her grandmother before they meet at the nursing home. Why Goyer opted for absurd coincidence over a pre-established relationship between the two women is utterly baffling. Even worse than the Casey-Sofi debacle, the dybbuk mythology never amounts to a compelling story or even makes much sense, despite the metric ton of mind-numbing exposition littering the movie's dialogue. Instead, it comes off as a convoluted contrivance that allows Goyer to wallow in every ghost movie and J-Horror cliché of the past decade. He loads his movie with quick-edit glances of hissing, white-faced children, accompanied by low-frequency whooshes in the soundtrack intended to make his audience jump in their seats. None of it is frightening, or even particularly creepy. Some of it is downright hilarious (a note to any dybbuks who might be reading this: It's mildly creepy the first time one sees a ghoulish person or dog with its head spun around backwards. The sixth time, not so much. You really need to come up with some fresh gags.)
I won't give away the movie's ending, but I offer you this warning, dear reader: You'll see it coming from a mile away, will convince yourself that Goyer wouldn't possibly write an ending that lame, and then either laugh or cry at the realization that not only would he but he did. The Unborn's denouement delivers a stunning blend of predictability and hardcore stupidity.
On the plus side, Goyer has learned much during his association with Christopher Nolan. The Unborn is elegantly shot and edited for a horror picture. Goyer and cinematographer James Hawkinson (Arrested Development) shot the movie with the natural color palette and restrained camera movement exemplified in Nolan's collaborations with cinematographer Wally Pfister (The Prestige). Moreover, Goyer and editor Jeff Betancourt (The Ruins) mimic Nolan's sense of editorial economy with precise crosscuts and scene changes initiated with overlapping dialogue. Despite its many story flaws and its slumming in the visual parlance of Hollywood J-Horror remakes like The Ring and The Grudge, The Unborn is a good-looking and technically impressive piece of work. This Blu-ray's 1080p VC-1 transfer does a fine job of reproducing the movie's visual beauty. Colors are accurate (though often cool and stylized), black levels are inky and gorgeous, and detail in shadow areas is excellent. Fine detail in close-ups is mostly exemplary, while wider establishing shots pop off the screen. The disc contains both the 98-minute theatrical cut (rated PG-13) and 99-minute unrated cut of the movie. After watching both versions (I'm a glutton for punishment), I can tell you that the differences between them are so minor that they eluded me.
Audio is presented in a DTS-HD lossless 5.1 surround mix that handles quiet dialogue with as much style as it does high volume scare effects. The balanced, aggressive mix uses the entire soundstage to deliver abundant audio thrills and chills, even if the basic approach is so typical of modern horror that it borders on self-parody.
Supplements are disappointing. In addition to the feature, the disc houses five forgettable deleted scenes that, combined, run about six and half minutes in length. They're presented in high definition, but with a weak Dolby stereo audio track that has to be cranked up in order to make out dialogue. The scenes expand on some of the plot developments, but all were best left on the cutting room floor.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, which grants you access to previews for other Universal Blu-ray releases but no content specific to The Unborn.
Even as I write this, I still can't quite believe that The Unborn is as bad as it is, but there you go. The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, but who cares?
Guilty as charged.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical and Unrated Versions
* Deleted Scenes