By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Christie Burke, Jesse Moss, Rebecca Olsen.
Directed by Brandon Christenson
Written by Brandon Christenson, Colin Minihan
Produced by Digital Interference Productions, Hadron Films
I had almost forgotten how good psychological thrillers could be.
If you’ll allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment, there seems to be a trend nowadays where people think the absence of answers automatically equals horror. One of the worst examples of this trend is The Disappointments Room, where the film plays up the possible presence of ghosts and teases its protagonist committing murder for an hour and a half, and in the end nothing happens and nothing is ever answered. There’s never any real threat, and nothing comes of the hour and a half long buildup; the director confuses confusion with horror, and mistakenly believes that his unanswered questions will keep you up at night. Ambiguity for ambiguities sake can arguably be considered a trend in modern horror, and so it’s refreshing to find a thriller that uses it to amplify the horror instead of mistakenly treating ambiguity as the source. STILL/BORN is a perfect hybrid of paranormal and psychological thrillers that should go down as a modern classic, a nerve-wracking, tense exploration of trauma, mental illness, and ghostly women that want your babies.
STILL/BORN follows Mary (Christie Burke) and Jack (Jesse Moss) as they try to settle down in an upscale suburb after a traumatic incident; Mary was supposed to give birth to twins, but unfortunately one of them was stillborn. As Mary and Jack attempt to cope with this tragedy and focus on caring for their still living son Adam, Mary begins to notice strange happenings around the house. Motion activated lights coming on in the middle of the night, voices whispering from the vents, a strange silhouette next to her son’s crib. Combine this with a next door neighbor who has indicated that she believes monogamy is a farce, visions of her dead son bleeding out in his crib, and paranoid google searches that bring up more troublesome results than anything on WebMD and you’ve got yourself a budding catastrophe on your hands. Does something want to take Mary’s child from her, or is she just paranoid? And what will she do to keep her son safe?
“STILL/BORN intersects paranormal and psychological horror to a horrifyingly effective end.”
First off, I just want to say this is a hard film to watch. I mean that as the highest form of praise possible. The film starts off with your typical paranormal boogity boogity bullshit (although in this film, the tension is so highly ratcheted from the beginning that even things I could see echoes of in other films were surprisingly effective), and then quickly and mercilessly becomes about the rapid degradation of Mary’s mental state. The spectre at the center of Mary’s obsession is terrifying, to be sure; and the film takes it’s time revealing her, using her sparingly, which I think made it that much more impactful when she was onscreen. But Mary herself is unquestionably the scariest thing about this film. She is such a wholly relatable character trying to push through one of the worst things a human being can go through, and the abrupt and rapid degradation of her mental state is tragic and horrifying all at once. No spoilers, but this movie takes her places and makes her do things that made me pause the movie, take a breather, and do it all over again five minutes later. That shit never happens, plain and simple.
Part of the reason this film is so affecting is because of the performances. Christie Burke SELLS every scene she’s in and adds quite a bit of nuance to the character; Mary is a fully realized, multi-dimensional character that quickly demands the audience’s investment, empathy, and even when we’re not sure if she’s earned it, our trust. Jesse Moss and Rebecca Olsen lend the same qualities to their characters as they grapple between Mary’s descent into madness(?) and their own concerns about the safety of their children. But Burke’s character drives the horror by changing in some truly terrifying ways, from taking on the aesthetic of a fifties housewife to calm her troubled husband before screaming at her baby to quietly spacing out and finding she’s missed hours of her life. On that note, this film is selective with what it doesn’t show us, cutting to black at inopportune times and only later revealing what transpired while we, the audience, were out of commission. That’s the secret of this film in a nutshell, depicting Burke’s spiral into madness so well and drawing us so deeply into her perspective that we feel we’re losing our minds along with her.
But where this film really exceeds so many of its counterparts is it’s ending. To reiterate what I said earlier, this movie does ambiguity right on every account. You will not get a solid answer by the end of this film as to whether Lamashtu is real or not. You will not know if Adam is truly safe or if Mary is truly crazy. This film is an underrated gold standard of psychological thrillers, and I’m giving it a 9 out of 10.
Brandon Christensen’s new film comes out on Shudder on May 7th, which is actually part of the reason I gave STILL/BORN a chance. As you can see, I wasn’t disappointed.
Give this a watch before it hits. If STILL/BORN is any indication, Christensen is one to watch.