The Unborn

Happened to see The Unborn in theatres the other day, and I was outright startled by two things. Not in the good, scared-in-a-horror-movie way either, despite writer/director David Goyer’s love of musical stings accompanying sudden movement onscreen. I’m sure the myriad jump-scares would have been more effective if they hadn’t been telegraphed so obviously. There’s not a scene in the movie where something ‘jumpy’ happens that isn’t preceded by a five-second shot of the place where the scare is going to happen. That’s just laziness.

Also, isn’t it a time for a moritorium on medicine cabinet mirrors and the frightening things that can appear in them or leap out from behind them? At what exact point does a cliché become so overused that the only emotion it creates in an audience is a combination of boredom and disgust?

Of course, that’s not what I set out to write about, no I’m looking to address two large problems in the film’s backstory, both centering around the holocaust.

Problem 1 – The Twin Misconception.

The entire film is premised around the idea that the main character, whose name escapes me at the moment, let me go and check the IMDB… Casey (Odette Yustman, star of terrible film Cloverfield), while in utero, had a twin brother that an evil Jewish ghost called a Dybbuk attempted to possess. The brother died during the pregnancy, though, foiling the ghost’s plan.

Casey starts seeing a young boy in old-timey clothing with creepy chalk-blue eyes everywhere she goes. She finds photographic evidence of him in a picture of her pregnant mother, then goes to a rest home to meet an old woman that her mother had found during her pre-death search for her birth mother. What she discovered in this search had apparently driven her made, leading to her being sent to an insane asylum and killing herself. Somehow it doesn’t occur to Casey for the first half of the film that the old lady her mother sought out might be her own grandmother, but that’s not the stupid thing I’m here to talk about.

No, the stupid thing I’m here to discuss is the extensive backstory that the grandmother eventually explains to Casey in a flashback that stops the film dead. In a side note, I’d like to point out that when Casey first comes to see the old lady, and explains her predicament, the old lady freaks out and sends her away, despite the fact that she knows full well that Casey is her granddaughter, and is in the process of being menaced by a killer ghost.

It seems that old lady and her twin brother were taken to Auschwitz, the most famous death camp of World War 2, where they were taken in by ‘Uncle’ Josef Mengele, famous for his love of experimenting on twin children. Actually, the film never refers to the flashback villain as Josef Mengele, for reasons I’m not clear on. It depicts him accurately, as a tall, thin, handsome man who kept his pockets full of candy to appease the children under his ‘care’. Since it’s so obviously Mengele, why not use his name? Were the filmmakers afraid that his family were sue?

So what’s my problem? This entire part of the film's backstory revolves around the idea that old lady and her brother were brought to Auschwitz and tortured because they were twins. That doesn’t actually jibe with the historical record, though, since Mengele wasn’t obsessed with twins, he was obsessed with identical twins. Being genetic copies of one another, identical twins were considered invaluable to scientific research, because you’ve always got a control to compare your research results against. Mengele could give one twin cholera, let them get really sick, and then kill and perform autopsies on both twins, so that he could compare the way the disease had attacked organs to an identical set of of uninfected organs.

Notice the key element ‘identical twins’ there. Bioval, or ‘Fraternal’, twins, since they came from two different sets of egg and sperm, are no more closely genetically related than any other set of siblings born to the same parents. This means that, when it comes to crazy scientific research, twins were of no special value to Mengele, and they never would have been selected by him for testing. Strangely, it seems that the filmmakers were somewhat aware of this, and in the flashback scenes set at Auschwitz, all of the other children we see are sets of identical twin.

This raises the question – why not make the grandmother and her twin identical in the flashback? What would have been changed in the film by making the creepy little boy a creepy little girl? It’s possible that the filmmakers just felt that there had been far too many creepy little girls in films lately, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but if that was the case, why not make it Casey’s elderly grandfather she goes to see at the home? Either of these changes would have had next to no effect on the film overall, beyond fixing a pretty major hole in the plot.

This brings me to my second major problem with the film:

Problem 2: Ausch-whatz?

During their time in Auschwitz, old lady’s brother had been given injections to try to dye his eyes blue (hence the ghost’s unusual eyes), and been killed by them.

In the main plot, Casey is bedevilled by a Dybbuk, which is exaplained as being a spirit who has been unable to enter heaven, and as a result, is cursed to wander the earth forever, searching for a way to be reborn into flesh. It had failed to do so with Casey’s twin, and now it wants another chance with Casey. Or rather, one of Casey’s children. I know that seems like a huge spoiler, since the revelation that Casey is pregnant is presented as a last-minute ‘twist’, but it’s glaringly obvious extermely early in the film. When the ghost only ever refers to manifesting itself as being ‘born’, and its previous attempt to bring itself to life had been taking over a fetus, the only thing the audience can possibly infer is that the Dybbuk wants to become Casey’s child.

Given the facts I’ve presented so far, it would seem likely that the Dybbuk was Casey’s great uncle, the old lady’s dead twin brother. That’s not the case, however. No, despite the fact that the Dybbuk decides to appear exclusively in the form of the little boy with chalk-blue eyes, the film explicitly states that it is not his ghost they’re dealing with.

It seems that the limitation placed on Dybbuk possession is that they can possess anyone with a stressed mental state for a limited amount of time, but if they want to possess someone permenantly they have to either be fetal or dead. After the old lady’s brother had been killed by experimentation, the Dybbuk had taken it over, but because it was unable to fake normalcy the old lady knew it was a monster, and killed it. This caused the Dybbuk to become obsessed with the old lady, and it fixated on using her progeny to be born once again.

Notice the problem here? That’s right, the whole ghost thing has absolutely nothing to do with Auschwitz, the Holocaust, or the second World War. The only relevant fact in the backstory causing a problem today is that a lady’s brother died and a ghost possessed the corpse. The fact that the possession and whatnot occurred while they were in a concentration camp, being experimented on by one of the worst men of the 20th century is entirely incidental, and has no bearing on the plot, beyond the fact that the ghost has chalky-blue eyes.

Had the little boy and girl been American, and the boy died of Cholera and came back to life before being killed again, the film wouldn’t have been changed at all. Beyond the loss of creepy blue eyes. This means that the Holocaust, still a sensitive subject for an awful lot of people, was included in the storyline for no other reason than to get those blue eyes in there.

One more time – this is a movie where a Jewish child in Auschwitz murders another Jewish child in Auschwitz because she thought he was possessed by an evil spirit.

I’m a little stunned. Do you think, in an earlier draft of the script, the Dybbuk actually was the little boy, who hadn’t actually died in the experiments, but merely gone into a coma, suffering brain damage, which explained his change in behavior? And then his sister murdered him because of superstition and desperation, actually creating the monster she sought to protect herself from?

Okay, maybe not.

Now, for the other stupid things in the movie, delivered in point form with so little detail that they won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

- Who took that film of the insane asylum?

- Why wasn’t the ghost-photo of her uncle a bigger deal in that lady’s life?

- You know, the much-maligned Auschwitz line doesn’t even make sense – Casey isn’t finishing what was started there. Old lady was trying to kill a ghost, Casey’s just trying to make it temporarily go away.

- If you’re the black friend of the main character in a horror movie, and a creepy little boy who pointedly survives being hit by a car then tells you he’ll kill you (like he killed his baby sister!) if you keep helping your friend, and then you do keep helping, and the next night all the lights in your house go off and there’s a creepy knocking at the front door, but when you look through the window you don’t see anyone, why on earth would you open the door? And after opening the door, if you saw that standing on your stoop was the same little boy who’d promised to kill you, why would you not then immediately slam the door in his face?

- On the balance, would letting the ghost be reborn really be such a bad thing? It’s not clear whether the ghost would kill the soul of the baby in the womb or merely jump into the baby before another soul got there, but even if the baby was technically being ‘killed’, that’s one death. By trying to stop the possession, Casey gets like ten people killed, including Stringer Bell from The Wire. From a simple numbers standpoint, it seems like she should have just let the Dybbuk have the fetus, especially since we’ve got no reason to believe he was going to go on to be violent once he got what he wanted.

- By the time the trailer line (and I’m paraphrasing here) “How can you stop the ghost of someone that was never born” is uttered, the idea that Casey is being haunted by the ghost of her dead fetal brother has been all but dismissed.

Oh, and I never wondered why Gary Oldman was in this movie. I thanked god he was in this movie.

The man may like money, but he never phones it in.

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