Directed by David S. Goyer. Starring Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Cam Gigandet, Idris Elba, Meagan Good, Jane Alexander, Atticus Shaffer, James Remar, Carla Gugino. (2009, PG-13, 88 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 16, 2009
There's a sequence early on in The Unborn in which Cloverfield's Yustman, out for a jog on Chicago's North Shore, encounters an apparition in the form of a sinewy, silent hound with a papier-mâché mask of a human face affixed atop its blunt canine visage. It's an eerie, inexplicably nightmarish image, and it owes much to the work of Irish painter Francis Bacon's 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. As it turns out, nearly all the dread in this otherwise dreadfully dull film stems from visual effects – some CGI but some better ones, including something ghastly with way too many teeth that comes courtesy of the always-alarming effects creator Greg Nicotero – that appear to be drawn from Bacon's doomy, war-haunted oeuvre. Goyer, who's better liked for his screenplays (Batman Begins, Blade II) than his directorial forays (Blade: Trinity, The Invisible), has the seed of a great horror film lodged somewhere in here, but it never makes it past the fetal stage. The Unborn ends with Oldman, as a rabbi, performing an exorcism of such stupefying ridiculousness that it qualifies as the best extended comedy bit of 2009 (I know it's early in the year, but this one is going to be tremendously hard to top). In between the devil dog and Oldman's fearless depiction of annoying rabbinic schmuckery is the story of Yustman's Casey Beldon, a willowy college student haunted by the suicide of her mother years before and, currently, the specter of a hollow-eyed little boy who turns up, uninvited, in her dreams, her mirrors, and, strangely, her medicine cabinet. Judging from the latter locale, this restless moppet is in dire need of some kabbalah Ritalin, but Casey's search sends her not to the psychiatric couch but instead to what looks an awful lot like Dario Argento's Rest Home for Aged Actors – an old-folks rookery replete with vivid crimson curtains, spiraling staircases, and florid art direction that would do any Argento giallo proud. It's here she meets Auschwitz survivor Sofi Kozma (Alexander, in fright wig and German accent), who hips Casey to the fact that she's been targeted for creepification by a dybbuk, a type of ancient Jewish demon. The l'il alter cocker's entrance into this world was initially facilitated by no less than Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazis' eugenically minded pediatrician from hell. Once this shocking revelation comes to light, well, obviously the only safe place is near Oldman or someone very much like him. Calling The Unborn a dull, plodding, exposition-crammed slog through a twilight of barely maintained tedium is like calling Valkyrie a yawn. It's too easy. But Goyer, who scores minor points for deploying a Star of David as an edged weapon, can't maintain the film's initially promising sense of menace, despite lifts from the likes of Mario Bava and Jack Clayton's The Innocents. Crib death? Not always a bad thing.