Jewish Horror Films: The Unborn (2009)

Generally speaking, I like writer/director David S. Goyer. Specifically speaking, I like the deco paranoid supernatural noir fantasy "Dark City" that he cowrote, am a fan of his work on the "Blade" films, and enjoy his work on the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. He also wrote the recent Superman movies, but I won't hold that against him, as I suspect they were more a product of director Zack Snyder than Goyer.

Goyer has a punky, pulpy sensibility in his best work, perhaps best exemplified by the opening scene to the first "Blade" movie, in which vampires dance at a rave in a slaughterhouse, culminating with blood spouting from the building's sprinkler system. It was a scene with real verve, and a lot of Goyer's best work seems pitched at near-hysteria, with everything just a little too broad and noisy to be tasteful, which is just how I like things. Tasteful can be awfully dull; give me something brash enough to be tasteless in a fun way.

Unfortunately, "The Unborn" is not that. This is a film about possession, and, to Goyer's credit, he rarely seems to borrow from "The Exorcist," but instead invents his own cinematic representations of intrusive evil. Goyer is Jewish, and, theoretically, this is a film about a dybbuk. There's even a Jewish book in the film, Sefer Ha-Marot, The Book of Mirrors, that is filled with woodcuts of terrifying exorcisms.

It's all invented, naturally. There never was such a book, and, if the woodcuts are real, they are likely not Jewish. The film's dybbuk is a cinematic invention, somehow both very ancient and called into existence by the Holocaust, which I will discuss in a moment. The dybbuk represents itself through floods of potato bugs, for some reason, as well as dogs with upside down heads, and both are legitimately unnerving. The dybbuk also appears as a hollow-eyed boy who looks a bit like a very mean Eddie Munster, and he is less unnerving, in part because these sorts of children show up in this sort of film with great frequency. Years ago, I met Kyra Schon, who played the little girl in "Night of the Living Dead," perhaps the first hollow-eyed child in contemporary horror. I asked her what she thought about all the ghoulish children in movies nowadays and she told me she sees them and thinks, well, there I am again.

There are three parts to the film: The haunting, which I have described, the exorcism, which is pretty chaotic and mostly consists of Gary Oldman as a rabbi and Idris Elba as an Episcopal Priest shouting a lot, and the backstory. As I mentioned, the backstory is set during the Holocaust, in Auschwitz, no less. We learn of a Nazi doctor who had a special affinity for doing medical experiments on twins, and the film's dybbuk used this as the opportunity to inhabit the body of a dead twin, and has been chasing twins in the family line ever since.

This is inspired by a true story, and it is a terrible one. The Nazi in question was Josef Mengele, who earfned the nickname the Angel of Death, and indeed performed hideous medical experiments in Auschwitz, often paying special attention to twins. In fact, an experiment shown in the film, in which the Nazi doctor injects the eyes of twins to see if they will change color, is something Mengele actually did.

And here's where things get tricky. I am not opposed to using the Holocaust as a setting for horror, per se. It's a real-world horror, and many Nazis were obsessed with the occult, and I am not someone who thinks horror is a degraded genre that should keep its grubby hands off the really serious stuff. Instead, I think horror exists in a tremendous metaphoric space with is well-suited to exploring difficult ideas or historic events, such as the Holocaust. In fact, the Hellboy comics regularly makes use of Nazi imagery, including a murderous German who, in the film version, was hideously disfigured due to obsessive self-surgery, and exists as a sort of monstrous metaphor for the Holocaust. I think this works quite well, and I trust Hellboy creator Mike Mignola's control of his material enough that, should he ever directly tackle the Holocaust, I think he would have a lot to say about the subject.

Goyer, and "The Unborn," doesn't, alas. The Holocaust flashback doesn't really inform the film so much as it provides a suitably horrific backstory. The film does not tackle the big questions of genocide, nor the smaller questions of how, under the right circumstances, a certain percentage of men will become monsters. Mengele and his surgical experiments are vastly more terrifying than a pale child who likes big ants, but he seems somehow generic in this film, in part because he's unnamed, and in part because his purpose is simply to create the circumstances of the dybbuk.

The story barely even exists in a Jewish context. While the film's lead character is Jewish (played by Cuban-American actress Odette Annable, who nonetheless is passably Jewish), and her father is played by an actual Jewish actor, James Remar, they never reference their Jewishness and it is possible the protagonist doesn't know about it until she first meets her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Gary Oldman plays a rabbi, but his presence is relatively small and he joins forces with a priest because they mutually agree that the dybbuk precedes organized religion.

So the lead character is not especially Jewish and the dybbuk predates Judaism, and this contributes to the Holocaust scenes feeling tacked on. I suppose there might be something interesting in taking the world of the Holocaust, with its occult murderers and Jewish victims, and seeing how it plays out in the secular world, where nobody much thinks about the occult nor Judaism. Such a story could ask what the meaning of the Holocaust is in this world, which is so far removed from the specific circumstances, and could ask if this sort of evil could duplicate itself without those specifics.

But I'm writing a different film than "The Unborn," which does not concern itself with those sorts of questions, and so I find its use of the Holocaust to be tasteless, and not in the way I like Goyer to be tasteless.

I will note something I found interesting in the film, however. One of the woodcuts in the Book of Mirrors shows a possessed woman with an arm reaching out of his mouth, and this lone image seems to have inspired the entirety of "The Possession," which returns to variations of that image again and again.

I tracked down the original source of the woodcut: It's from a 1598 book, and shows a priest exorcising a woman. I don't know what to say about the fact that these two mainstream Jewish horror movies couldn't seem to make use of actual Jewish imagery to tell their stories, but it's disappointing.