If The Unborn isn’t Hollywood’s first Jewish horror movie, it’s got to be the first one in which an exorcism is preceded by the blowing of a shofar.
The film, which opens today, was written and directed by David S. Goyer, who wrote Batman Begins and the Bladetrilogy. It follows Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman), a morose college student who still grieves for her long-dead mother and has a penchant for tight athletic wear. When Casey starts noticing a creepy-looking boy with neon-blue eyes who’s invisible to everyone else—on the street, on a nightclub dance floor, behind her bathroom mirror—she knows something isn’t quite right. What she doesn’t know is that she had a twin brother who died before he was born, and that her mother’s mother was—well, let’s just say that by the time an old woman with a Hungarian accent (Jane Alexander) appears, you know Auschwitz can’t be far behind. And it isn’t!
In a season with far too many concentration camp movies, out of nowhere comes what amounts to Exorcist V: Shoah. The Unborn is not terribly scary, and it’s humorless (unless you count the scenes with the homicidal six-year-old, which had the audience guffawing at the screening I attended). Aside from its Jewish angle it’s as predictable as all the other horror films that studios dump into theaters every January. The old Hungarian, Sofi Kozma, is Casey’s grandmother. She survived Auschwitz as a child, but her twin brother didn’t. The siblings were subjected to one of Josef Mengele’s perverse experiments, in which the brother had something toxic injected into his eyes to make them blue. (Since, you know, blue eyes were important to the Nazis.) The brother died, and then he came back to life. But he wasn’t the same anymore—he was a dybbuk! Yes, here’s a mainstream horror movie aimed at teenagers—complete with video IM’ing and babysitting and vodka-and-Red-Bulls—that has a dybbuk as its villain, and goes to awkward lengths to explain what a dybbuk is.
In her skillful accent, Jane Alexander says that she and her fellow kiddie Auschwitz prisoners could tell that her brother was no longer her brother. He had neon-blue eyes and a ghostly pallor. “So I killed it,” she says. Yep, she killed her own brother at Auschwitz. (And you thought The Reader was the most deplorable Holocaust-exploiting film now in theaters.) Sofi reveals that this brother who died at Auschwitz is now the dybbuk that’s haunting Casey. He—it, whatever—wants to be reborn in her, his great-niece. There’s only one way out: an exorcism.
For some reason the exorcism can be performed by only one person: Rabbi Sendak, played by esteemed non-Jew Gary Oldman. He’s a tweedy, progressive rabbi, and he tells Casey when she comes to him that he doesn’t believe in any kabbalah nonsense. That is, until a few scenes later, when a mysterious wind in his synagogue tears the Torah to pieces, and he gets menaced by a dog with an upside-down head. When the exorcism finally begins, Rabbi Sendak is assisted by a basketball-playing Episcopal priest (Idris Elba—Stringer Bell from The Wire!). But the exorcism doesn’t go as planned, even though Casey does some impressive writhing on the gurney she’s strapped to. (“My main source of research was watching real exorcisms on YouTube,” Yustman says in the press notes.)
In many horror movies dealing with religion and the occult, the lead—often a skinny hottie—suffers as punishment for her loss of faith. As Goyer, the writer-director, says in an interview on Rottentomatoes.com, The Unborn can be seen as one of them:
Rottentomatoes: There’s also the idea in the movie that younger generations are detached from their heritage, that Casey not only doesn’t practice the Jewish faith but also is unaware of the dybbuk that has cursed her family for generations.
Goyer: Well, it’s a subtext. They’re detached from their lineage, they’re detached from their heritage, they’re detached from their families, and that makes them more vulnerable, because there’s not as much of a sense of community. It’s all subtext, but it’s in there, yeah. Absolutely.
Goyer goes on to say that survivor’s guilt, passed from grandmother to mother to daughter, is an equally strong factor in Casey’s torment. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. What a relief, after the film’s unsurprising surprise ending, to see The Unborn’s final credit: “NO ACTUAL TORAH SCROLLS WERE DESTROYED OR DAMAGED IN THE MAKING OF THIS MOTION PICTURE.”