I hit a very unfortunate thematic streak of horror films a little over a year ago. For three months, it seemed that every film I walked into dealt with abortion and/or violence induced miscarriages. Just imagine chugging along on a tight little horror film and then--BAM! fetuses everywhere. I had to start laughing to stop myself from crying. I didn't even know some of the characters were pregnant before it happened, which made it all the more surprising. Thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant, I can share some horror films that fall into the same trend. The difference is that pregnancy and/or post-natal care are actual plot points, not moments designed to shock the audience. The scares are justified in the screenplay and that's more than enough for me to link them together.
Do you remember reading about a horror film at Sundance two years ago that caused audience members to pass out and require emergency assistance? The one about the atypical pregnancy that was omg the most graphic thing ever? Grace is that film. The rumors aren't an exaggeration except for another foreign horror film, Inside, coming out the same year and making Grace look like Mickey Mouse Club by comparison.
Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd) is a married woman expecting her first child. She previously lost a baby and is doing everything in her power to stay away from a hospital environment, which she blames for the loss. Her former research partner Patricia Lang (Samantha Ferris) is a midwife who will be delivering the baby against the wishes of Madeline's mother in law, Vivian Matheson (Gabrielle Rose). After narrowly escaping an induction from a misdiagnosis at a hospital, Madeline gets into a terrible car accident that kills the baby. She still insists on carrying it to term. Despite Patricia's claim that you can't wish a baby to life, Madeline's daughter Grace manages to start breathing and feeding after it looks like it’s a stillborn. The only problem is what Grace requires to feed on.
I can only imagine that the horrifying graphic imagery that was written about happens in the first reel of the film. Anytime the slightest thing goes awry with Madeline's pregnancy, buckets of blood appear. Then there's the actual shock of seeing Madeline's body after she's thrown out of her SUV in the car accident. Her stomach is the wrong shape and there is blood and viscera everywhere. It's an image that won't soon leave my mind.
The problem with Grace is that writer/director Paul Solet thinks he can sustain a feature length film off of a short film concept by constantly inserting upsetting imagery. Grace feeds on blood more than she feeds on milk. So, we see Madeline's shirt fill with blood, or blood drip down her skin, or blood running off her nipples. Vivian wants to stimulate breast milk production to take Grace away from Madeline, so we see her husband suck on her nipples, we see her squeeze her nipples, and we see her hook up a breast pump in full detail. And then when the body count starts to pile up, we see brain matter go flying and blood hemorrhage out like a Troma film. The problem with violence for the sake of violence is that the audience becomes desensitized to it very quickly. It's not, "I can't believe this is happening right now," it's "oh, more blood. Next."
Take away the violence after the car crash and delivery and you have three ideas: Patricia isn't answering Madeline's phone calls, Vivian's trying to take Grace away, and Grace needs to feed on blood. Repeat those for an hour and you reach the end of the film. Grace starts out strong and then hobbles along to a predictable gag at the end. Only the most dedicated horror fan will find something to like in this film beyond the first reel, which is sadly too graphic and unjustified to recommend to non-gore fans.
Masters of Horror: Imprint (2006)
Speaking of controversial horror films that caused problems because of graphic violence, next up on our handy guide to Pregancy/Post-Natal Horror is Masters of Horror: Imprint. Takashi Miike is a very strange filmmaker. He uses brutal acts of violence to explore the human psyche and is not afraid of showing every single drop of blood to get there. Imprint was so offensive to the censors on Showtime that they backed down from their "do anything so long as you don't show pink" standards for the horror anthology series and barred this entry from airing in America. Why? Was it the needles under the fingernails or constant reinvention of a girl's tragic murder? Nope. The answer is many disturbing abortions.
In 19th Century Japan, an American named Christopher (Billy Drago) wanders from brothel to brothel trying to find the girl he promised he would save. He winds up at a particularly seedy establishment where is forced to spend the night with a girl of his choosing. He picks the deformed girl known as The Woman (an amazing performance by Youki Kudou, who you might know as Pumpkin from Memoirs of a Geisha or Hatsue in Snow Falling on Cedars). She knows exactly what happened to Christopher's beloved: she died. The mystery is how she died, as The Woman tries to spare the American the awful truth.
From the very beginning, Miike sets up how much pregnancy will play into the climax of the film. As Christopher is rowed along a river, the boat hits a corpse of a pregnant woman. When Christopher first meets The Woman, she tells him about her childhood where her mother was a midwife. The Woman was an unexpected pregnancy and had to be sold to a brothel as a teenager when her mother could no longer care for her. There she met Christopher's beloved and quickly became friends. Or did she?
There is no definite sense of time or place in Imprint. Miike has apparitions of memories appear in the background as new versions of the story of The Woman unfold. When the violence finally hits, all hell breaks loose. Visions constantly flood the small room at the brothel and The Woman's behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Christopher becomes desperate to know the whole truth because he knows nothing shy of outsider interference would stop his girl from waiting for him. He's right and he's wrong. Let's just say he should have taken The Woman's advice that the truth is not always more comforting than the lies we tell.
If there is a flaw in Imprint, it is the sound mixing. Christopher barely speaks above a whisper for much of the film, which requires you as a home viewer to raise the volume to understand him. The only problem is everything else is exceptionally loud. Are you willing to sit there and raise and lower the volume between the male lead's every line to make sure you don't blow out your speakers when the music hits or another character gets mad? I can only assume that someone unfamiliar with the impact of Miike's composition thought the graphic violence needed more oomph to scare rather than upset the audience, resulting in jump-scare like sound dynamics. It's still an excellent short film in spite of the volume issues and certainly worth seeing. Just be wary that the violence inflicted on Christopher's beloved is brutal even to a hardened horror fan like me.
Six Films to Keep You Awake: To Let (2006)
What can be said about the most nightmarish entry in the Spanish made-for-TV movie series Six Films to Keep You Awake that I haven't said before? A lot, actually. To Let is the twisted tale of a young couple trying to move into a bigger apartment before Clara gives birth. They find an apartment complex in their price range that is very difficult to get to. They meet an agent at the door and are shown to their possible new home. And by possible, I mean permanent, as this agent won't take no for an answer.
To Let is just a strange film. If you've read the Stephen King story "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French," you'll get the basic conceit of this film right away. This young couple is going to be going through the same horrors again and again with only minimal variations for the entire length of the film. They find a phone, the phone is broken, so they move onto the next room where they find a tortured tenant, try to free the tortured tenant, fail, and find another phone, which is also broken, which leads them to the next room. Can they escape their dream apartment after it turns into a nightmare?
Are they dead? Are they dreaming? Are they actually being tortured? You don't know. The greatest strength of this film is its ambiguity. Does the film tip its hat toward nihilism a bit too often? Absolutely. There is violence and amorality that serves no purpose other than to show violence and amorality on Spanish TV. The driving purpose of the film is to demonstrate that dreams are of no actual substance and in that, it succeeds.
However, for me, To Let is a failure. I was not entertained by the film in any way. It left me bored and numb. More violence, more characters with no purpose, more hopelessness. It is quite possible for a film to meet its lofty philosophical goals and still fail as a film. If a narrative feature doesn't provide some semblance of entertainment or fails to use the fictional medium as a meaningful exploration of a belief structure or philosophical concept, it doesn't work as a narrative film. If someone took To Let and used it as a driving force in a documentary about existential nihilism, that person would probably have a successful film. Unfortunately, To Let is a total wash unless you really like pointless gore used to show how pointless gore actually is.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.