Home Video Hovel: The Unborn, by David Bax
For a movie most people have either forgotten or never heard of, Rodman Flender’s The Unborn, from 1991, has some notable pedigree. From star Brooke Adams (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Dead Zone) to a villain played by the great, recently departed character actor James Karen (Poltergeist, The Return of the Living Dead) to small turns from Kathy Griffin and Lisa Kudrow (as a brunette!) to a screenplay from John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who would go on to write David Fincher’s The Game to cinematography by Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies), this thing is stacked. And, more surprising still, given the film’s lack of notoriety, the end result shows it. The Unborn is whip smart and, most importantly, committed to its bizarre premise all the way to the bitter end.
Adams stars as Virginia, a writer who’s been trying, with her husband Brad (Jeff Hayenga), to have a baby. After repeated frustrations, they learn of an experimental study led by Dr. Richard Meyerling (Karen) that’s had an impressive success rate. Virginia agrees to take part and soon becomes pregnant but it’s not long before her joy fades in the face of the realization that what Dr. Meyerling has done to her—what he has put inside her—is not what it seemed.
The Unborn’s greatest strength, and a grounding element for a movie that will eventually become wonderfully deranged, is that Virginia’s anxieties begin well before she realizes that something sinister is going on. Flender, Brancato and Ferris sympathetically explore the fear of parenthood. Virginia has struggled with depression and is understandably worried that she’ll pass her illness on to her child. But, more specifically, The Unborn is interested in the type of anxiety felt by feminists weighing the psychic conflict between their hard-fought independence and their desire to fulfill a traditional female role that has, for so long, been used to keep women down (although the movie does have some fun at the expense of more stereotypical, wacky, granola, lesbian feminists like the one played by Griffin). When Virginia refers to “this thing growing inside of me,” we may know she’s talking about an actual monster but the metaphor for complicated feelings about impeding motherhood is clear and powerful. And that’s before the movie expands to include other feminist issues like gaslighting and the terror of a literal back alley abortion.
Of course, this is also a movie about a demonic fetus. For all of its dialectical unpacking, Flender never forgets to have good, schlocky fun. The Unborn is a culty midnight movie that, like far more such films than we tend to credit, has a brain whose synapses are constantly firing away just beneath all the gore.
Shout! Factory’s 2K transfer is solid, especially when it comes to reproducing Pfister’s hazy, atmospheric cinematography.
The only special feature is a new audio commentary with Flender and filmmaker Adam Simon.