Ah, the horrors of parenting. Such fertile ground for horror movies. After all, let’s face it, the responsibility that comes with having a newborn can be overwhelming, if not outright terrifying. Just the sleep deprivation alone could drive you to your wit’s end. Still/Born, released earlier this year, has a fairly generic synopsis but some good word-of-mouth buzz. And most critics seem to have something good to say.
Mary and Jack are a young couple expecting twins. But during the delivery one of the babies is stillborn. Returning home with their newborn son, Adam, Mary struggles with the challenges faced by all mothers while husband Jack returns to work. Soon Mary hears another baby crying through the baby monitor. She catches glimpses of ghostly images in her son’s room. She fears a supernatural force wants to take her son. Meanwhile Jack and Mary’s mother worry that she may be showing signs of postpartum psychosis. Is baby Adam in danger? Or is it all in Mary’s mind?
Still/Born Injects Familiar Plot Beats with Genuine Tension
On one hand, Still/Born has a pretty familiar horror story. A character confronts ambiguous sights and sounds. Family and friends respond with skepticism. As the disturbances persist, the line between imagination and reality blurs. There’s a laundry list of movies using the same basic set-up. Nevertheless, director Brandon Christensen effectively balances slow-mounting tension with well-executed jump scares. In fact, Christensen shows a lot of restraint in Still/Born, which goes a long way towards setting his movie apart. He never goes to the well too often or overexposed an effective scare techinque.
Fortunately, Christensen wisely keeps his demonic creature in the shadows, never allowing the audience to see too much of it.
Like the story itself, the supernatural antagonist borrows its appearance and jerky movements from past movies. Undoubtedly, horror fans will notice some nods to J-horror from the early 2000s. Fortunately, Christensen wisely keeps his demonic creature in the shadows. He never shows the audience too much. As a result, the monster has much more of an overall impact while also not exposing any budgetary constraints.
Still/Born sparingly uses jump-scares. The result is a much more satisfying experience than your run-of-the-mill horror film. One baby-cam scene may actually scare you our of your seat. Where Still/Born really shines though is with its ability to build tension. In particular two scenes are likely to elicit some screaming and shouting at your television screen. As a parent, these two moments managed to get under my skin and create a sense of panic that few horror movies ever elicit.
Strong Performances and Challenging Subject Matter Add Emotional Weight to the Scares
Christie Burke, who plays Mary, is tasked with carrying much of the movie. It’s a stellar performance that elicits empathy from the audience. Burke thoroughly convinces as a women becoming increasingly desperate to protect her son. The rest of the cast isn’t asked to do much. But Jesse Moss (Jack, Mary’s husband), Rachel Olson (Rebecca, the neighbour), and Sheila McCarthy (Mary’s mother) are all fine in their supporting roles. Canadian character actor Michael Ironside (Scanners) plays against type in a small role as Mary’s doctor.
By and large, the screenplay never exploits the condition …
Where audiences may be divided on Still/Born is the film’s tackling of it difficult subject matter. Last year’s M Night Shylaman film, Split, prompted a wave of criticism from mental health advocates for its perceived exploitative use of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Still/Born tackles the sensitive issue of postpartum psychosis. By and large, the screenplay never exploits the condition but rather treats it with an appropriate level of understanding. Still/Born never demonizes Mary. While the climax steers the film in an unexpected direction the conclusion asks the audience to again see things from Mary’s perspective.
Still/Born an Unexpected Horror Treat
Overall, Still/Born is a tightly paced, well-acted, and genuinely scary movie. It prompts a certain amount of uneasiness that lingers long after the final credits finish rolling. Even with its pretty rote premise, Still/Born delivers its share of scares. This is certainly an under-the-radar movie film worth checking out. Keep an eye out for director Brandon Christensen and his next movie.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+