Parenting is challenging and it can sometimes be a terrifying experience, especially for first-time parents. The responsibility that comes with having a newborn can be overwhelming at times. Just the sleep deprivation alone could drive you to your wit’s end. Still/Born, which was released on streaming services on February 6, 2018, has been on my ‘Recommended List’ now for a couple of weeks. Despite having a fairly generic synopsis I thought it was time to finally check it out.
As I suggested above, the general synopsis for Still/Born sounds like a very family horror story. 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, new mother Mary struggles with many of the same challenges faced by all mothers while husband Jack returns to work. Things slowly take a strange turn as Mary begins hearing another baby crying through the baby monitor and seeing ghostly images in her son’s room. As Mary increasingly fears a supernatural force wants to take her son, Jack and her mother worry that she may be showing signs of postpartum psychosis and putting Adam’s safety at risk.
Still/Born’s narrative of a character’s supernatural experiences drawing increasing skepticism from those around them as their sanity becomes in doubt is fairly rote in the horror genre, but director Brandon Christensen (also one of two credited screenwriters) effectively balances slow-mounting tension with well-executed jump scares. Christensen shows a lot of restraint in Still/Born, never going to the well too often or overexposing an effective scare techinque. Like the general narrative, the supernatural antagonist borrows its appearance and jerky movements from past films – most notably calling to mind J-horror from the early 2000s – but Christensen keeps his demonic creature in the shadows, never allowing the audience to see too much of it. As a result, the film’s monster has much more of an overall impact while also not exposing any budgetary constraints. Jump-scares are also used sparingly in Still/Born with much more satisfying results than your run-of-the-mill horror film. One scene involving a baby-cam actually managed to scare me literally out of my seat. Where Still/Born really shines is with its ability to stack on the tension with two scenes in particular likely to elicit some screaming and shouting at your television screen. As a parent, these two really managed to get under my skin and create a sense of panic that few horror films can ever manage to elicit.
Most of the film’s focus is on Mary, played by Christie Burke, and she does an excellent job shouldering the acting workload in Still/Born. She turns in a stellar performance that elicits empathy from the audience as her increasing desperation to protect her son leads those around her to question her mental health. The rest of the cast isn’t asked to do much in the film 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 plays against type in a small role as Mary’s doctor.
Where audiences may be divided on Still/Born is the film’s tackling of the difficult subject matter of postpartum depression and psychosis. Last year’s M. Night Shylaman film, Split (2017), prompted a wave of criticism from mental health advocates for its perceived exploitative use of Dissociative Identity Disorder as a device intended to provide fear. While I would generally defer to women in horror and their view on how Still/Born treats postpartum psychosis, I would certainly argue that the screenplay never exploits the condition but rather treats it with an appropriate level of sympathy and understanding. Mary’s character is never demonized in Still/Born and while the climax steers the film in an unexpected direction the conclusion asks the audience to again see things from Mary’s perspective.
Having never heard of Still/Born before it popped up on my Apple TV recommendations, I was pleasantly surprised with this small, very well made horror film. It was a tightly paced, well-acted, and genuinely scary film that left me with an uneasy feeling long after the final credits had run out and the lights were turned off. In addition to offering some good scares, the film gives you something to consider, which is in keeping with the tradition of the better films in the genre. This is certainly a lesser-known film worth checking out and I’m anxious to see what Brandon Christensen does for his next film.