A woman is stalked by the supernatural presence of her twin brother, who died in the womb (strangled, we’re informed, by her umbilical cord) and now seeks to use her as the vessel that will give birth to him, or more properly to the demon (or dybbuk) that once attempted to be rejuvenated through him. This is the sort of oddball premise one might expect in a Japanese ghost movie, which is precisely what writer-director David S. Goyer’s “The Unborn” feels like, despite the lack of Asian actors and subtitles. I suppose that means that it actually feels like a rotten Hollywood remake of a Japanese ghost movie, except that in this case there’s no original and instead of the usual Oriental lack of logic Goyer provides an absurdly complicated explanation for the awful phenomenon that involves not only kabbalistic Jewish mysticism but Nazi atrocities, too.
Odette Yustman plays the put-upon Casey Beldon, a college coed with a hunky boyfriend named Mark (Cam Gigandet) and the conventionally sharp-tongued best friend, here called Romy (Meagan Good). But the poor thing is troubled by horrifying dreams, postergeisty noises and shocking visions (as well as a spooky neighbor boy) that lead her to investigate her family’s sorrowful past. An interview with Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander), a death camp survivor who turns out to be her long-lost grandmother, reveals that Sofi and her brother, Casey’s grand-uncle, were victims of Mengele-inspired experimentation involving twins that released the dybbuk, who carried on his lust for rebirth into the next generation with Casey’s late mother Janet (Carla Guigino). But it also becomes clear that Casey is now the target of possession by the demon—evidenced by the fact that her eyeballs begin to change color (!)—which occasions “Exorcist”-inspired intervention by not only a rabbi (Gary Oldman) but also an Episcopal priest (Idris Elba). Apparently Casey isn’t aware of the lesson taught by William Peter Blatty to the effect that if you want efficiency in this regard, the Catholic route is the one you really must take; and so things turn out none too well.
“The Unborn” is a pretty amazing brew, combining silliness, tastelessness and ponderousness in approximately equal measure. The best that one can give scripter Goyer credit for is a willingness to throw all semblance of reason to the winds—how else could one explain his decision to have Casey’s dead brother referred to by a pre-birth nickname like “Jumby” which elicits a guffaw the first time you hear it and then has the same effect every time it’s repeated? (When DVD use comes around, it could become the basis of a drinking game.) Or by his decision to toss in a “surprise” closing revelation that, as far as I can tell, renders pointless all the ghoulish goings-on that have preceded it?
As director Goyer shows himself proficient in the employment of the dumb CGI shock effects that have become obligatory in these shlockfests, and composer Ramin Djawadi cooperates with the loud claps that are equally necessary to accompany them, but his leaden pacing not only makes things boring but accentuates the plot holes mercilessly. And though James Hawkinson’s cinematography makes fair use of the attractive Chicago locations, it bores us by using the drab color palette so beloved of horror movies nowadays; and the brooding aerial shots not just of the skyline but of every house and hospital serving as scene sites are laughably repetitive.
Goyer recognizes, however, that when you have such eye-pleasing folk like Yustman and Gigandet around, it would be wasteful not to take advantage of their real talents. So he stages as many scenes as he can with him striking virile poses and her prancing about in the skimpiest possible attire. (At times you might think you’ve wandered into a big-screen montage of underwear ads.) Otherwise the acting is strictly utilitarian, even from old pros like Oldman and Alexander, who seem all too aware that they’re slumming here.
Goyer’s last movie, “The Invisible,” was actually adapted from a foreign thriller—in that case, a Swedish flick—and was fairly effective, though badly treated by its distributor. This one, thought up out of whole cloth, probably shouldn’t have been brought to term.