Home is where the heart is, which goes some way toward explaining why it’s such ripe territory for horror. 2014’s The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent, is the perfect example of such “domestic horror,” turning the stresses of being a mother and the shadow of grief into a truly chilling haunting. Still/Born is something of a spiritual successor, as it deals with a similar dovetailing of motherhood and loss, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
The main problem is that the film defaults to making its mystery explicit instead of leaving it to the imagination. The unknown is always scarier than the known, and the first half of the film is accordingly much stronger than what comes next, as the frights buckle under narrative pressure for a neat resolution.
Mary (Christie Burke) gives birth to twins, but only one baby, Adam, survives. As she tries to adjust to her new life—her husband Jack (Jesse Moss, the poor man’s Justin Trudeau) has just been promoted, and they’ve accordingly moved into a larger house and to a more affluent neighborhood—things start to happen that point to some other presence in the house, and a possibly supernatural reason for the death of her other baby. When Adam starts crying, it doesn’t sound like he’s alone: The baby monitor also picks up the sound of a man weeping, though when Mary rushes to check, there’s no one else in the nursery.
Some of these scares are old hat but director Brandon Christensen has a deft enough hand that they still feel new, helped along by the fact that the script goes out of its way to dismiss some of the oldest horror tropes in the book. Jack isn’t an entirely present husband as his work takes him away from the house, but he’s sweet and attentive when he is around, and doesn’t disbelieve Mary’s fears until well into the last act of the movie.
Things only start to unravel when the curtain is pulled back on what’s happening in the house. Jack’s solution to Mary’s conviction that something is wrong is to take her to a therapist (played by, of all people, Michael Ironside); Mary’s solution is to take matters into her own hands, eventually coming across a woman who claims that a demon stole her baby under similar circumstances. If the notion sounds silly on paper, it doesn’t fare much better on film, especially as the film doubles down on that premise and abandons the more psychological horror that worked so well at its beginning. As a result, the mystery dissolves, buried underneath demon voices that sound like prank calls more than supernatural entities.
There’s enough the film does well that it wouldn’t be amiss on any horror enthusiast’s shelf, as the jump scares are solid and the thin story is boosted by the competency of everyone involved. It’s just that it falls into one of the most frustrating categories of film, i.e., the missed opportunity. Still/Born could be much more than it is, and I’ve found myself stuck on that hypothetical other movie rather than any of the real movie’s merits.
The success of home-bound horror hinges less on the strange and more on the idea that perfectly normal people are capable of doing terrible things, even to those they love. What happens when unconditional love isn’t enough? It’s scarier when Jack installs surveillance cameras throughout the house to monitor Mary’s behavior than when Mary actually sees the monster because it’s such a clear indication that there’s been some break in the trust between them. And later on, when Mary suddenly seems to get her act together and turns into the perfect Stepford wife, the thought that she might have snapped is more affecting than the demon now so clearly prowling through the house.
Still/Born starts to get predictable as its central mystery becomes clearer, which is disappointing not just because the first half of the film is so strong, but also because these turns ultimately trap Mary in stale territory as the crazy housewife, complete with jealousy over a flirtatious neighbor. It comes off as regressive in a genre that has been more progressive than its lauded peers, to the point that the movie feels older than it is. Mary deserves better, and so does Christie Burke, who shines even as she’s relegated to diminishing material.
It’s frustrating not least because stories about motherhood—stories about women—have begun something of a resurgence, and not just in the horror genre. Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are both centered on a mother-child relationship, and they’re most striking when focusing on that human aspect. Though horror naturally demands a certain amount of exaggeration, the best parts of Still/Born suggest that both Burke and Christensen would be fully capable of carrying that home. As underlined by The Babadook, it’s scarier to think of what we as humans are capable of doing to those we love when pushed to our limits than what some monsters may be able to inflict upon us because they have a taste for human flesh.