Jesse Hassenger swims in the dreck of January.
It’s long been established that while studios expand their awards hopefuls throughout January, they have a lucrative side business releasing horror, wedding, and dance movies which will, on average, outgross, say, two to three of the five eventual Best Picture nominees (if the Academy was still in the habit of nominating the likes of Chocolat or The Cider House Rules, I’d try to make some comment about the average quality, but assuming the five movies everyone thinks will get nominated make it in, I can hold off on that particular snottiness). This January is especially horror-heavy, with four in a row: The Unborn last weekend; My Bloody Valentine 3-D next; an Underworld sequel (it counts!) the weekend after; and The Uninvited rounding off the month on what I’m told is Super Bowl weekend. At your service, I will see them all.
So first up, The Unborn, which called firsties on the whole horror-movie year. Only having seen the title and a trailer, I was assuming this movie had something to do with a devil fetus; it turns out that’s more or less the only horror movie David S. Goyer didn’t write and direct here. There’s a creepy ghost child, a creepy non-ghost child, haunted mirrors, a creepy mental hospital, creepy crawlies, exorcism rites, and at one brief point, the heroine becomes a menaced babysitter, just for good measure. Goyer finally settles on the exorcism business, presumably because he thinks he has a good angle: this is a Jewish exorcism. Which is different from a Catholic exorcism presumably in that Gary Oldman is wouldn’t otherwise make time for something so clichéd.
Gary Oldman isn’t the star; that would be Odette Yustman, who plays a young lady attending either a really posh high school or a kinda crummy college, who discovers she was a twin, but her brother died in the womb, before he could be possessed by this demon force that now has its eyes on her. Yustman looks like a cross between Megan Fox and Jessica Alba, and she crosses their likable amateurishness, too. In other words, it’s basically a Jessica Alba performance, but slightly less pompous because no one is asking us to buy Yustman as anything but a scream queen. Her earnestly lost quality starts to make sense.
It’s hard to tell whether Goyer is to blame for this character and/or performance. His name is on a lot of awesome genre material, including Dark City, but he’s so often a co-writer that it’s difficult to suss out his skill level. I didn’t want to assume that because his last name isn’t “Nolan” that his contributions to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were mostly story-level, if that, but given that the only two movies he’s both written and directed are The Unborn and Blade: Trinity, well, that drops some clues, I guess.
I’m still being charitable in the sense that I kinda liked Blade: Trinity (albeit less than the other two Blade movies, which Goyer wrote but did not direct). The Unborn, though, while reasonably well-directed in terms of images and mood, is pretty damn cockamamie. Characters disappear and reappear at convenience, Yustman’s character lacks agency even for a horror heroine, and the sequel-baiting final scene, while sort of cool, would’ve been a lot cooler halfway through the movie, rather than making a vague promise that maybe next time something truly creepy will happen. Also, I’m pretty sure this movie sets some kind of horror movie for ratio of scenes where the lead character is naked to scenes where the actress is naked. It’s like four to zero. It takes a fumbling kind of horror movie to have the starlet take a tasteful gratuitous shower.
Still, this isn’t the worst January horror I’ve seen over the last few years, or even the worst PG-13 one. At times — Jewish exorcism times, for one — it’s enjoyably silly, and the crowd at Union Square was with it. Not “with it” like “finding it particularly scary beyond the two good jump scares,” but actually engaging with it and laughing at both the (few) good jokes and the (many) bad serious parts, not just texting and chattering through it. The Unborn made a ton of money this weekend, I think mostly by virtue of being first out of the gate. I see that The Uninvited actually got an indie-cred cast led by David David Strathairn and Elizabeth Banks; hey, I’m excited, but if you want the real January money, just be first.