THE UNBORN (1991): Baby On Board… For Horror Mayhem

One of the richest sources of inspiration for the horror genre is childbirth. Everybody’s afraid of the idea that something might be wrong with their child and that fear has fueled a series of hits as diverse as Village Of The Damned, The Omen and It’s Alive.  It seems like everyone has gotten in on this trend at one time or another, including Roger Corman. Though he is not credited on the film by name, The Unborn was made with his help by a group of Corman protégés and it’s one of the best latter-day theatrical films to emerge from his genre film mill.

The Unborn centers itself around the travails of Virginia (Brooke Adams), a childrens’ book author who has never been able to conceive and is afraid she is aging out of being able to. A miracle presents itself via the clinic of Dr. Meyerling (James Karen), a physician whose in-vitro techniques seem to produce children at will. Virginia and her husband Brad (Jeff Hayenga) sign on and she quickly becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, Virginia’s mind and body soon take on sinister changes. She also learns that Meyerling’s experiments have a dangerous history that suggest he has less than ethical purposes.

The resulting film goes for the throat but does so with style.  The script is credited to one “Henry Dominic” but this is a pseudonym for the team of John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who in later years wrote Hollywood hits like The Net and The Game. Their work here covers a lot of ground in an 84 minute time, mixing killer-kid and mad science motifs with some Larry Cohen-style commentary on the business that has risen around pregnancy.  It’s also pretty vicious, with a steady stream of mayhem that includes births going gruesomely wrong, moms getting murderous and – of course – killer mutant babies in the best It’s Alive tradition.

The Unborn was directed by Rodman Flender, a Corman producer who went on to a long career directing t.v. and the occasional feature, including the ’90s fave Idle Hands.  He maintains the crisp pace you expect from a Corman production and gives it a surprisingly lush look thanks to glossy cinematography from a young Wally Pfister, who would later shoot several films for Christopher Nolan.  One Repulsion-inspired scene overstays its welcome and some threadbare makeup FX crimp the third act’s power but otherwise it’s a professional-looking film with a few impressive shocks.

Finally, the film also boasts a nice cast that plays the material straight. Adams gives a serious performance here, really digging into the heroine’s fears and traumas in a way that makes it easy for the audience to empathize with her plight. Karen offers a good counterbalance, underplaying the menacing side of the role but selling the villain’s mixture of confidence and control-freak tendencies. Hayenga makes a good foil for Adams in the domestic scenes and you’ll also see a young Lisa Kudrow as a nurse. However, the scene-stealer in the supporting cast is Kathy Griffin: she plays a New Age birthing practices teacher who runs afoul of the doctor’s work in one of the film’s best/grimmest shock scenes.

In short, The Unborn is a solid representative for the b-movie end of the spectrum when it comes to pregnancy-themed horror flicks.  It’s stylish and a little smarter than you might expect but it also goes for the gusto in the ways a horror fan wants.

Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just rescued this title from home video limbo as part of their line of late ’80s/early ’90s Corman productions.  The new 2K scan of this title does well by the film’s moody, soft-lit look and the lossless 2.0 stereo track gets the job done nicely.  A trailer and a commentary track with Flender and fellow Corman alum Adam Simon are also included.


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