Back in 2009, The Unborn debuted to a quiet January release, with legitimate box office success, but very mixed reviews. It aimed to be a creepy supernatural thriller aimed at teens (with its PG-13 rating), but never fulfilled the potential it had. The film was filled with great ideas that just never developed into the amazing piece of horror it could have been.
A Different Kind of Exorcism
Supernatural and possession horror is nothing new to the genre. But the myriad of films that deal with it tend to only focus on the Catholic version of exorcism. And because of them getting all the attention, many have come to assume that they’re the only ones who have such a ritual.
The Unborn does a brilliant job of showcasing the Jewish form of exorcism, as well as demonstrating the subtle differences between the ones we’re so used to seeing on film. It’s one of the first films to specifically reference a dybukk as a type of demon (which would later be made famous by 2012’s The Possession), and more than that, it offered a really fascinating and tragic backstory about said demon.
We learn that its origin came from the horrific experiments performed by Nazi scientists of Jewish children in concentration camps. Some of the best horror films ever made remember that telling an interesting and compelling story must come first before any scares.
And The Unborn at least tried to capture this idea. In addition, it boasts an incredibly strong ensemble case with the likes of Gary Oldman, Idris Elba, Odette Annabelle, and James Remar, and was even the film debut of Rachel Brosnahan.
The Rating Didn’t Help
Despite having the foundation of a horror classic, The Unborn unfortunately failed to deliver on all that it promised. We get a great sense of atmosphere throughout the film, but it relies far too much on cheap jump scares to frighten its audience.
When a film has ideas as disturbing as this one does, it’s best to let them simmer with the audience, so that long after they’re done watching it, the film stays with them. It also suffered from its own PG-13 rating. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a horror film having this rating, but if it does, there needs to be enough creativity to counter it (like Insidious, The Ring, or the PG-rated Poltergeist).
The Unborn clearly wants to rely on all out horror and terror, but isn’t willing to go the extra R-rated mile to do so. To be fair, it was released at a time that studios were trying their best to release more PG13 films for mass appeal (two years prior we even got a PG13 Die Hard sequel!). And perhaps the time of its release worked against it in another way as well.
Just a Few Years Too Early
The 2000’s were known for the rebirth of the zombie genre (with 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake), and for the era of “torture porn” (Saw and Hostel). There was just no room for a quiet little possession film filled with clichés to thrive.
It wasn’t until a year later with Insidious that the supernatural subgenre made a strong comeback. Had The Unborn been released a few years later, the studio probably wouldn’t have meddled to make it so generic and it would have had a much warmer reception. But it’s all in the past.
For now, all we can do and enjoy the film that we got (it’s currently streaming on Netflix!), and hope that this didn’t ruin the reputation of dybbuks or the portrayal of Jewish exorcism. Because these ideas could make for even more great horror films!
What did you think of The Unborn? Does it deserve a wider audience and recognition, or is it just another clichéd PG-13 supernatural thriller? Let us know in the comments!