Remembrance of Demons Past

The Unborn raids the modern horror memory bank, from The Exorcist to Auschwitz

For as long as it forges ahead without explanations, The Unborn works 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 baby-sitting 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.)

Oldman, Yustman: Milking the durable exorcism subgenre
Oldman, Yustman: Milking the durable exorcism subgenre

Details

The Unborn, starring Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Meagan Good, Cam Gigandet, James Remar, Jane Alexander, and Idris Elba. Written and directed by David Goyer. Rated PG-13.

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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, 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' phallic debraining 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 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, harks 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. Goyer may have changed the name and spiritual trappings, but the symptoms of dybbuk possession here involve 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).

The final exorcism by committee, performed in an abandoned asylum that looks as if it were 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 royal bombast, and start wondering where to eat after the movie.

 
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