For as long as it forges ahead without explanations, The Unborn works, in its way, as a series of snap-cut gotchas introducing each new contestant in its pageant of cold-sweat set pieces. Often, this involves starlet Odette Yustman approaching some obscured, inevitably terrifying figure from behind, very . . . very . . . slowly.
Yustman plays Casey, a well-heeled young Chicago-area suburbanite who’s been having bad dreams. The night terrors begin to infest her waking life when, while babysitting one of those whey-faced grade-schoolers who populate modern horror films as if by quota, the kiddie cryptically intones: “Jumby wants to be born now.” (Not quite “They’re heeere,” granted.)
Trying to figure out what exactly that means leads Casey and The Unborn into a thicket of exposition—involving suicided mothers, Nazi mad geneticists, kabbalah/Jewish folklore—from which it never returns (though it does leave a memorable pungency behind). A catnapping MPAA stamped this one with a PG-13, but you can still see our heroine, in an out-of-body dream-float, witnessing her own mutilation by some sinister moppet; the hallucinated return of the dead matriarch with a howling, slimy, saber-toothed skull; and an eruption of slopping, slithering, grub-like fingers grabbing at sweet, hapless Casey.
Yustman’s “character” is basically skin-deep, peeping views of her in various stages of intimacy her dramatic development (a view of the actress’s pert butt in vacuum-wrapped panties is The Unborn‘s international poster). Writer-director David Goyer (creator of the Blade franchise) is resourceful in maneuvering his muse into suggestively deviant setups; one scene, sure to set any crowd abuzz with “Wait, really?” anticipation, has her putting her ear to a mysteriously whispering glory-hole in a nightclub bathroom stall (cue inadvertent flashbacks to Shawn Wayans’s phallic de-braining in Scary Movie). During a penultimate exorcism, she gets to model a ball gag.
No, The Unborn is not a remake of the little-loved 1991 Brooke Adams fertility clinic shocker of the same name (the VHS cover art of which mildly disturbed many young’uns on trips to the neighborhood Video Time). The titular reference to from-the-womb haunting is only an afterthought; this Unborn more fully belongs to the durable exorcism subgenre. The cultural-milestone success of The Exorcist was sufficient to establish an entertainment cottage industry that has made room for Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider, a Blaxploitation spinoff (1974’s Abby), and even a day-late Zucker-biting parody (Repossessed), with the ’00s having seen a small-scale return of the cycle (Exorcist prequels, Hex, An American Haunting, The Exorcism of Emily Rose).
The Unborn, however, harkens back pre–Linda Blair to one of the earliest mass-culture manifestations of the roving-soul-looking-for-a-host-to-enter-the-corporeal-plane thing: shtetl ethnologist S. Ansky’s 1920 smash of the Yiddish stage, The Dybbuk (filmed by Micha Waszynski in 1937).
Goyer may have changed the name and spiritual trappings, but the symptoms of dybbuk possession are only as novel as their CGI, here involving crab-walking while one’s head twists backward. Old World Jewish superstition is reintroduced to an assimilated, way-beyond-the-pale America as Casey and her BFF sidekick (“Do you believe in ghosts?” “You know I do!”) follow hunches to a Holocaust survivor in a local rest home and to a Talmudic scholar (Rabbi Gary Oldman, looking old, man).
Tracing the dybbuk’s birth to the concentration camps seems a stab at giving The Unborn—only superficially Semitic—a real cultural identity. This results in dialogue that either sounds cribbed from a Men’s Adventure pulper (“The Nazis believed that twins could unravel the mysteries of the genetic”) or oversteps the jurisdiction of a shallow multiplex horror show (“It has fallen on you to finish what began in Auschwitz”). Blame it on the smartie horror-as-metaphor crowd.
“Dybbuk” instead of “demon” is just a matter of novel semantics here. The Unborn is one of those movies evidently conceived by digging a Dungeons & Dragons Fiend Folio out of storage to find, resurrect, and rebrand some long-forgotten bugaboo (e.g., the dusting-off of “djinn” to fill in for “genie” in Wishmaster). Given the cover-band constraints that rule in horror, it seems a safe bet that, someday soon, we’ll be menaced by such obscurantist horrors of lore as Baba Yaga, Tailypo, and David Gest.
The final exorcism-by-committee, performed in an abandoned asylum that looks like it was laid out by the Illinois chapter of the Knights Templar, is a pan-denominational, p.c. update of The Exorcist‘s implicit verification of Catholicism’s One True Faith—an eclectic outreach conference with everyone but an imam along for the ride. Tune out the battle royale bombast, and start wondering where to eat after the movie.