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Why is it that characters in horror films never seem to do anything that's even vaguely sensible? If a creepy zombie child leaves a mitten lying on the pavement, they pick it up. If they hear ominous clunking noises coming from behind the medicine cabinet mirror, they open it up to investigate. And they always seem to manage to wander into the woods alone.
Teenager Casey Beldon does all of this and more. Oh, so much more.
Eerily—and abruptly—confronted with the fact that she's actually a twin who "killed" her brother in utero, Casey decides to delve deeper into why strange and terrifying hallucinations have begun to plague her.
Never delve deeper!
But she does, and in doing so discovers Sofi, a Holocaust survivor who knowingly tells Casey that her (Casey's) unborn twin is now trying to possess her. Cue the extended, scream-, convulsion-, ghoul-, monster- and grotesque fetus-filled exorcism scene.
When Casey tells best friend Romy that she should leave because it's not safe to be around her, Romy vows her allegiance, promising not to abandon her pal. Likewise, Casey's boyfriend, Mark, helps her fight off the darkness as best he can, even putting himself in grave danger to stand by her.
Like so many other horror films, The Unborn is insistently spiritual. Yet, simultaneously, its characters—one of them a rabbi, another a priest—seem not to be especially convinced that the resolution of Casey's dilemma lies in the spiritual world. For example, Casey is Jewish through heritage, not practice, and she seeks religion's aid not because she's spiritually aware and penitent, but brutally haunted and seeking any possible port in the storm. And when she asks Rabbi Sendak to perform a Jewish exorcism, he—a self-professed "man of God, but not a miracle worker"—doesn't truly believe it will accomplish anything.
The exorcism goes forward anyway, with the ecumenical rabbi calling in backup from Arthur Wyndham, an Episcopal priest. In this movie's view, demons are no respecters of religious affiliation. Indeed, it takes elements of all faiths to fight them off. The event is highly symbolic, occurring on the Jewish Sabbath and involving a shofar to "shock" the spirits, a recitation of Psalm 91 in Hebrew and English, and 10 people representing the 10 Commandments, the 10 attributes of God and the 10 fingers on a human hand.
During the exorcism, the disgruntled spirit, called a dybbuk, jumps from one participant's body to the next, even taking hold of and destroying the priest. Possessed victims' faces contort to fanged demonic expressions. Heads revolve on necks. Etcetera. Mysteriously (and improbably) the dybbuk never overcomes Casey herself.
Exorcism guidelines are found in The Book of Mirrors, a Kabbalah text. The old book contains sketches of demons, demon-possessed animals and people with their heads turned upside down, and various pentagram-esque images.
Casey says she doesn't think that there's an afterlife. Dream interpretation and mythology are mentioned, as well as several superstitions involving babies, ghosts and mirrors. To combat supernatural forces, Casey puts a pair of scissors under her pillow. Sendak says that the idea of spirits and demons became a catchall for conditions that people couldn't explain, including mental illnesses. The dybbuk is deemed unkillable: The best the living can do is push it back across the divide between life and death.
Sofi prays to her "eternal king" who has returned her soul to her. And to help Casey ward off evil, she gives her a "hand of Miriam" pendant. After this, Casey installs wind chimes (they warn of a spirit's presence) and destroys all the mirrors in her home (they act as doorways for the dybbuk). A Torah is supernaturally torn up in Sendak's synagogue.
Early on, a few jibes are traded about pornography, masturbation, erections and vaginal disease. Casey and Mark take full sexual advantage of the fact that Casey's dad is out of town for a night: We see them entwined in bed and kissing. (His chest is bare and her shoulders exposed.)
Mark is seen in his boxers. Casey often wears a midriff-revealing camisole and panties. She and other women wear cleavage-revealing tops. Casey's bare back gets screen time while she showers.
An obscene (relatively unheard of) item seen inside a public restroom deserves mention here, but not explanation.
Flashbacks to the Holocaust reveal pale, gaunt children strapped to tables and undergoing various genetic tests, including a long-needled injection into an eye. (The camera stays behind the child's head.) The bodies of dead children are seen covered with white sheets. Sofi tells the tale of her killing her twin brother after she comes to realize he is possessed by a dybbuk.
Various spooks pop out of mirrors, walls and doors to screech and grab at people. Casey stabs a demon-possessed character in the leg with her pendant. A 4-year-old boy (who's possessed) aggressively hits Casey's face with a small mirror. He also stabs Romy in the stomach with a large knife. Even more disturbing, Casey wakes up to find a zombie child slowly lifting up her shirt to expose her stomach. Then he reaches into her abdomen and begins to pull something out. (There's no blood.)
Possessed, a man's head rotates upside down before he chases a victim. Several other heads snap and turn as well. An elderly woman falls down a flight of stairs. Mark (he's possessed, too) beats his head against a concrete wall. Romy hits a boy with her car. The tyke flips over the hood and crashes into the windshield, but is supernaturally unhurt.
During the exorcism, Casey and others are thrown across the room as unseen forces torment them. One participant's back bends in half and snaps. A gurney and other objects are tossed around by a violent wind, hitting people. The priest viciously pummels Mark with his fists before Mark kills him with a crowbar. Mark tries to strangle Casey by holding her against a wall with his hand. He eventually falls to his death from a second-story landing.
It's said that Casey's mother committed suicide by hanging herself. We watch as a mother wails over her dead infant. (It's implied that the baby's possessed brother did the deed.)
Crude or Profane Language
A small handful of s-words. God's name is misused more than a dozen times. Other language includes "b--ch," "a--" and "h---," each used at least once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A club scene shows people drinking. Romy calls Casey's hallucinations drinking related. And she jokes about taking her mother's Xanax.
Other Negative Elements
While walking through a skilled-care facility, Romy rudely calls attention to a man's diaper. She calls one women a "hag" and another "munchkin lady." Romy's pet name for Casey is "hooker." Sofi lies to Casey. Casey steals a valuable manuscript from a library.
At an ophthalmologist's office, the doctor inserts a speculum into Casey's eye, opening her eyelids wide for the squeamish. Casey vomits. And several gross-out scenes revolve around giant insects and gushing brown slime.
As gross—and as violent—as it is at times, The Unborn shuns hard-core horror, opting instead for random jump scenes and cringe-inducing head-spinning.
That doesn't mean it's tolerable.
More disconcerting to me than the film itself was the audience's response to it in the theater I attended. After one gruesome scene involving close-ups of a demonic rotting corpse and dead fetus, one moviegoer yelled out, "I've seen worse!" To which most everybody in the theater chuckled. And through much of the rest of the "action" (defined as people vomiting, bugs crawling and faces disintegrating) my seatmates of both genders snickered and commented on how silly it all was.
That makes me wonder why they were there at all. It seems they showed up for a terror-inducing adrenaline rush, but have been so desensitized to horror (had they all just left a Saw marathon across town?) that they couldn't feel its sting anymore.
Here's the truth: The Unborn is at best a misguided, spiritually dark jumble of religious nonsense, unnecessary violence and gratuitous shock. (For the record, jump scenes don't drive plot progression.) And, unwittingly, it is a thermometer that reveals how cold and calloused our culture has become to aggression and preternatural chaos.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Odette Yustman as Casey Beldon; Gary Oldman as Rabbi Sendak; Meagan Good as Romy; Cam Gigandet as Mark Hardigan; Idris Elba as Arthur Wyndham; Jane Alexander as Sofi Kozma; James Remar as Gordon Beldon