Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: The Unborn (1991)

Horror tales are often thought of as being concerned solely with the end of life, preying on our universal fears of death and decay, but the act of bringing new life into the world has provided almost equal inspiration for terror with pregnancy, birth, and the rearing of children continually exploited for all their panicked possibilities.

With the very likely to be heinous romantic comedy What To Expect When You’re Expecting currently in theaters, I couldn’t help but think of the many attention worthy counter-programming options to be found in the horror genre.

While several horror classics involving pregnancy and its potentially awful aftermath instantly come to mind, like Rosemary’s Baby or It’s Alive, I’m going with a largely forgotten item from the back catalog – 1991’s bloody baby bonanza The Unborn.

Written by the duo of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris under the shared pseudonym of Henry Dominic (the duo’s more recent efforts have been much more high profile, such as the last two Terminator films) and directed by Roman Flender (who later went on to helm 1999’s minor cult fave Idle Hands), The Unborn stars Brooke Adams (The Dead Zone) as Virginia Marshall, an author of children’s books who has struggled for years to have a child of her own.

After several miscarriages, Virginia and her husband Brad (Jeff Hayenga) visit the offices of Dr. Richard Meyerling (James Karen, of Return of the Living Dead), a fertility specialist who might have the answer to their prayers (watch for a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow in a brief appearance as Meyerling’s receptionist). Virginia is deemed fit to participate in Meyerling’s experimental in-vitro fertilization program and before long, Virginia and Brad are expecting their first child.

Of course, what the joyful couple is too late to find out is that Meyerling is something of mad scientist and the genetically pimped out baby currently growing in Virginia’s belly is not going to bring the couple much in the way of happiness. Brancato and Ferris could’ve constructed The Unborn as a paranoid thriller, making the viewer question whether Virginia is only imagining the worst about Dr. Meyerling and her baby or whether her suspicions are real but while we’re told that Virginia has a history of mental problems and as events spiral out of control she has to wonder whether she’s cracking up, we know from the jump that something diabolical is at the heart of Meyerling’s miraculous practices because it’s not just Virginia who’s having issues.

The film begins with a pregnant woman under Meyerling’s care undergoing violent contractions at home only to have her stomach burst open as her frantic husband is on the phone calling for an ambulance. It’s an attention grabbing opening and it serves notice that this is not going to shy away from being an exploitation film. Clocking in at a brisk 85 minutes (an ideal running time for a B-movie), The Unborn doesn’t waste a minute in getting down to the nitty gritty of fetal fury.

While we do understandably have to wait until the final act to see what kind of kid Virginia is going to deliver, Flender isn’t in slow burn mode here. The Unborn isn’t just about waiting for Virginia’s baby to arrive. Instead, we see several vicious vignettes unfold along the way as Virginia comes into contact with other patients of Meyerling who are further along in their pregnancies than she is – and none of them are having a happy time of it. Not the couple that has given birth to a genius daughter thanks to Meyerling’s intervention only to see that gifted daughter kill their preexisting mentally handicapped son. Not the woman who, driven mad by the weird effects of her pregnancy, stabs herself repeatedly in the stomach but only manages to put herself – rather than her baby with its cockroach-strength resiliency – in critical condition. And absolutely not the lesbian couple (whose non-pregnant half is played in a rare serious turn by comedienne Kathy Griffin) who engage in a bloody battle to the death as the mother-to-be realizes that she can’t share her love with anyone except her baby and decides that she needs to bludgeon her girlfriend to death with a hammer.

Produced by Roger Corman, The Unborn is ruthless in a manner that horror fans are sure to approve of, cheerfully going for as many appalling, tasteless moments as possible. With such highlights as a live mental meltdown occurring on a morning TV talk show (a very pregnant Virginia, promoting her new book, tries to get the word out to the world – hysterically shouting to the camera that “they’re eating us alive!”), a grimy back alley abortion that fails to slow the stride of a determined super-fetus (nobody puts baby in a dumpster!), that same aborted – but still extremely frisky – baby murderously wielding a long knitting needle, and a climatic decision from Virginia that can only be considered to be a perverse ode to motherly instincts, The Unborn is a rousing addition to the killer baby sub-genre.

A word of caution: The Unborn is not recommended to casual genre fans that limit their horror diet to the absolute cream of the crop. For them, the merits of The Unborn would be hard to discern. But if, like me, you’re the kind of dedicated (some might say foolhardy) genre buff who has spent thousands of horrors scrapping the bottom of the barrel, renting every last horror title that their local video store stocks in the hopes of discovering a neglected gem, The Unborn is the kind of rewarding find that makes that often thankless task worthwhile (or at least momentarily tolerable).

Like a good B-movie should, it goes to a few funky places that your typical studio genre film wouldn’t. Amid the mostly sanitized horror product of the early ‘90s, The Unborn’s scrappy nature and occasionally humorous winks (like a close-up of a blood spattered Baby On Board sign) helped it to stand out and over twenty years later, it still holds up as a modestly mounted but gonzo thriller that keeps throwing curves at the viewer until the final frame.

The mewling mutants of The Unborn might not be the bundles of joy that their birth mothers were hoping for but horror fans ought to consider them to be prime candidates for adoption.

Originally published on 5/21/12 at Shock Till You Drop

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