Writer/director David S. Goyer’s “The Unborn,” which opens today, is a perfect movie to review—especially from a writing perspective—because it’s a shining example of exactly how NOT to write a horror movie… or any movie in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre.
“The Unborn” tells the story of Casey (Odette Yustman), a twenty-something college student who finds herself haunted by a mysterious demon… and must uncover the ancient family secrets that have led to her haunting. (WARNING: I won’t give away the very end of the film, but as you read on, know that I’m about to give away the major twists and turns of the movie.)
The film wastes no time jumping right into the horror, opening on Casey—out for a winter jog—as she finds a lost mitten in the park. She stops to pick it up, noticing a spooky-looking kid standing behind her. When she looks again, the boy has turned into a dog wearing a mask. The dog leads Casey into the woods, where she finds its abandoned mask nestled in some leaves. She tries to pull it free, but it’s connected to something buried in the soil. She begins to dig… only to discover that the “something” is a jar—containing a preserved human fetus! Suddenly, Casey awakes in her own bed—the whole thing was a dream.
From this moment on, almost every scene plays out the same way… Casey spots something bizarre and visually arresting, goes to investigate, and winds up—along with the audience—getting startled by a devil-child, a grotesque monster, or something equally weird.
In the second scene, Casey is on a babysitting job when she hears strange noises in the bedroom. Upon peeking inside, she finds the little boy (her babysitting charge, not the freaky kid from the park) trying to get his infant sister to stare into a handheld mirror. When she approaches to ask what he’s doing, the kid whirls—smashing Casey across the face with his mirror! Later that night, as she heads home, she discovers another mitten lying in the snow.
In the third scene, the next morning, Casey wakes up and decides to make eggs for breakfast. But when she cracks an egg into the pan, out falls a giant buzzing ant!
Obviously, Casey is quite unsettled by these events. She tries talking to her best friend Romy (Meagan Good), her boyfriend Mark (Cam Gigandet), and her dad (James Remar), but no one believes her. Casey has nowhere to turn… until her doctor notices her off-color irises and mentions he usually only sees it in twins. Piqued, she asks her father if she ever had a twin… and he says she did: a brother who died in utero.
Casey is shocked and devastated by this news… not only that she had a twin who died in the womb, but that her parents never told her. Casey retreats to her attic, where she sorts through boxes of photos and relics from her past and childhood. We learn that her mother passed away years ago (later, we’ll learn she committed suicide in an insane asylum)… but she left Casey some unusual items—including a newspaper article about an old woman who lives in a nearby hospital.
It turns out the woman is Casey’s long-lost grandmother, Sofi (Jane Alexander), who informs Casey she’s being haunted by a dibbuk. According to Jewish lore, a dibbuk is a spirit caught between this world and the next; it’s trying to get back into this world, but in order to do that, it must possess a body. And it wants Casey’s. (By the way, Casey is way less traumatized by discovering a secret grandmother than learning she had a fraternal brother who died in the womb. Uh… SERIOUSLY? I’ve never been told I had a sibling in utero, but I don’t think I’d be that rocked by it. I mean, who cares? At the very least, I certainly wouldn’t be more blown away by that than the discovery of my LONG-LOST GRANDMA.)
So why does this evil dibbuk want Casey? Because almost eighty years ago, young Sofi and her fraternal twin brother were captured by Nazis and taken to Auschwitz, where Nazi doctors—who believed twins, because of their shared DNA, had occult powers and were doorways to the “other side”—subjected them to deranged experiments. Unfortunately, Sofi's brother died… but then came back to life, possessed by an evil dibbuk! There was only one thing Sofi could do: KILL HER ALREADY-DEAD BROTHER. (This brother, she explains, is the ghost-child Casey has been seeing.)
Ever since, the dibbuk has wanted revenge on Sofi and her descendants. The dibbuk killed Casey’s unborn fraternal twin brother. It drove her grief-stricken mother to suicide. And it now wants to kill Casey… unless she can find a rabbi to exorcise it before it possesses her. And now, Sofi tells Casey, “it has fallen on you to finish what began in Auschwitz.” (By the way, this uber-earnest line got a huge laugh in the theater.)
As Casey races to stop the dibbuk, it tries everything in its power to destroy her. It re-possesses the little boy (the babysitting kid) and stabs Romy to death. It possesses Father Arthur Wyndham (Idris Elba), a priest, and Mark… and snaps in half most of the people helping with Casey’s exorcism. And it terrifies Casey with scary images, dreams, and hallucinations (mostly involving warped baby faces, dogs, or giant ants).
So… I bet you’re already asking the maddening questions this movie doesn’t answer. I’ll list them here, but know this: none of these are the movie’s biggest flaw… so bear with me…
• If the dibbuk wants to possess Casey so it can return to this world, why does it also want to kill her? (At different times, it tries both… it’ll try to possess her… then kill her… then possess her… then kill her…) We never know what this demon actually wants—or why—so we’re never quite sure what the real threat is.
• What are the stakes of Casey being possessed? Obviously, no one wants to be possessed, but we’re never told what possession “means” in the world of this story. In fact, we never—until late in the movie—see the dibbuk do anything but give Casey creepy hallucinations, so we’re never sure of the real consequences of tangling with this demon.
• The movie posits that twins, thanks to their shared DNA, qualify as “mirrors,” making them doorways to the “other side.” But Casey and her unborn brother were FRATERNAL twins—they shared no more DNA than any other non-twin brother and sister! So how do they qualify for “mirror” status like identical twins which come from the same egg?! (And the same goes for Grandma Sophie and her brother!)
• If this demon wants revenge on Sofi and/or her descendants, why didn’t it just kill Sophie long ago? (And the rest of her family for that matter?)
• If the dibbuk wants to kill Sofi and it can snap people in half, why doesn’t it just snap her in two or throw her off a building? Why does it do nothing to her but show her scary pictures? (Sofi, at one point, says the dibbuk wants to wear Casey down, make her weak, so first destroys people close to her. Yet not only does this seem inefficient on the part of the demon, Sophie also says the demon can’t be reasoned with. But a demon with this thought-out of a strategy—even an inefficient strategy—seems pretty capable of reason to me.) (Also, why does the demon possess a little boy and then stab Romy to death? This also seems inefficient, considering the demon already has the power to SNAP PEOPLE IN HALF.)
• If the dibbuk wants to POSSESS Casey (instead of kill her),
why doesn’t it just possess her? It already possesses everyone else… the little neighbor boy, Father Wyndham, an old man in the hospital, Mark… why not Casey? Sofi implies that Casey must be “worn down,” like she’s somehow too “strong” to be possessed, but we see no evidence of this. In fact, a twenty-something girl seems a lot easier to possess than strapping, basketball-playing Father Wyndham or Casey’s cool boyfriend Mark.
• What do the giant ants have to do with anything?
But like I said, none of these are the movie’s fatal flaw. In fact, all of these glaring flaws may have seemed a lot less glaring if the movie hadn’t failed to do one all-important thing. And that is…
“THE UNBORN” ISN’T “ABOUT” ANYTHING.
In other words…
Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories work because they’re allegories for universal human experiences. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” tells the story of a teenage girl who kills monsters… but it’s really about the cruel tortures of high school, adolescence, and growing up. “Cloverfield” is about the lengths to which we’ll go to be with our true love… even if the obstacles keeping us apart are as great as a prehistoric monster. “The Exorcist” is an adult’s perspective on a kid growing up, losing her innocence, morphing from a sweet child into something sullied, ugly, dangerous. “Cujo” is about feeling trapped and cornered by events or behaviors out of your control… and being unable to protect your loved ones from those behaviors (Stephen King would say those events and behaviors were his own alcoholism).
(One of my favorite “Buffy” episodes to cite is “Ted,” guest starring John Ritter, in which Buffy’s single mom begins dating again. Her first suitor is Ted… whom Buffy hates. Buffy’s mom begs her to give Ted a chance, but Buffy doesn’t trust him… and she soon discovers why: Ted is a deadly robot. It may sound silly, but the point is: it doesn’t matter whether you hate your mom’s boyfriend because he’s an evil machine or you just don’t want your mom giving her love to someone new… when you’re sixteen, the feelings and behaviors are the same.)
Yet “The Unborn” has no allegory. We never learn anything else about Casey, her life, or what she may be going through outside of this frightening adventure.
If we were to learn, for example, that Casey’s mother had died only months earlier… and Casey hasn’t been able to move on… the movie might be about the past’s ability to haunt and control us.
If we learned up front that Mark wanted to get married and have a baby… but Casey was terrified of marriage and parenthood… the movie’s events would feel like a manifestation of Casey’s fears, of her apprehension about growing up and becoming a mom.
If we learned that Casey’s brother had died when she was five-years-old… and he died because she left him alone… the movie would be about how buried guilt chases and consumes us.
But since we learn nothing—literally NOTHING—about Casey’s life outside the film’s sequence of events, there’s no way to give them any emotional context. They may be visually shocking, but when they don’t strike us on an emotional level… when they’re nothing more than disturbing images… they become just that: a haphazard series of images that momentarily disturb, but quickly lose their power to do even that.
So what’s the lesson we can learn from “The Unborn?”… That no matter how enticed we, as writers, may be by the visions haunting us (and I think as horror fans we often have mental libraries of horrifying visions)… and no matter how much fun we may have weaving our library of visions into a seemingly logical story… horror stories don’t begin with scary images.
Horror stories begin on deep emotional levels… levels where our emotions are so dark and powerful we can’t deal with them head-on… levels so deep we must create metaphors and allegories simply to face the feelings that live there.
(I.e., it’s a lot harder to talk openly about the shame burdening us than it is to write a short story about a murderer, racked by guilt, who hears his victim’s heart beating beneath the floorboards. And it’s a lot more painful to discuss unresolved feelings of forbidden lust and longing than it is to write a novel about falling in love with a vampire.)
I don’t mean any of this in a dorky, college-English-teacher, “write-from-your-heart” kind of way.
I mean this in a very literal, practical, “write-from-your-heart” kind of way.
This is the essence of horror, folks (and by “folks,” I mean you, David Goyer)… you are writing about something so personal, so emotional, so profound and moving that it can’t be expressed in normal words or images. In fact, the only way for you to express it is to create a fantasy world where you can work with the events and feelings from a distance. If you ultimately don’t know what those feelings and events are (like in “The Unborn”)… or if you can express them in a more direct, straightforward way… then do yourself and your audience a favor: don’t tell us a horror story.