The giggle-a-minute STILL/BORN opens in a hospital delivery room, husband Jack (Jesse Moss) clutching the hand of wife Mary (Christie Burke) as she gives birth to their son Adam. Seconds later, the doctors encourage Mary to push again. The strains turn to screams of despair as it's discovered that Adam's twin brother is stillborn.
We catch up with this young couple a few days after this tragedy. They've just recently moved into an impressively large property in an attractive neighbourhood, which we soon learn they've had to stretch themselves financially to acquire. So, it's all the more important that Jack continues to court success in his suit 'n' tie job. This means he's going to be out of the house a lot, and his mind is often preoccupied even when he is home.
Which, of course, leaves the bulk of the parenting tasks to Mary - who understandably is still mourning the loss of one child (it doesn't help that Adam's nursery still houses two cots).
For a short while, Mary copes okay. Jack is as supportive as he can be, when he's around, and their next-door neighbour Rachel (Rebecca Olson) is also a new mother - and a very friendly one at that. But the cracks soon appear.
Mary hears strange noises one afternoon on the baby monitor, but all seems okay when she rushes to check on the sleeping Adam. Jack responds by buying a video monitor so they can watch Adam as he snoozes. This just leads to Mary obsessing over it - and being horrified when she spies a female figure reaching into Adam's cot to pick him up. On a later lunch date with Rachel, she discovers they both have the same monitor, and tells herself their signals must be crossed (she must've seen Rachel picking her own child up, in other words).
But all is not well. Mary is grieving; motherhood is mundane and lonely; both Jack and, via Facetime, her mother Sheila (Sheila McCarthy) are concerned about her sleep deprivation. Just to make matters worse, Jack has to go away to Pittsburgh on business for a while. It's at this juncture that Mary's hallucinations - or, at least, what she perceives as being hallucinations - intensify.
Jack suggests enlisting the help of Sheila, or hiring a nanny to help: Mary rebuffs both offers. Enter therapist Dr Neilson (Michael Ironside). He diagnoses Mary as having post-partum depression. He prescribes a course of anti-depressants to her and advises that she focus on the joy of Adam. Crucially, however, Mary lies when Neilson asks if she's been suffering from hallucinations.
So, Jack goes away. But not before installing CCTV cameras in each room of the house, much to Mary's chagrin. The only adult interaction Mary has now is with Rachel, and their regular daytime meet-ups.
In the meantime, Mary is home alone and growing increasingly disturbed. One of the nursery windows smashes inexplicably during the night (the local police put it down to mischievous kids); Mary continues to see apparition-like figures on the CCTV camera footage; a power-cut in the dead of night prompts a set-piece sequence where Mary inadvertently locks her child in another room and terrifyingly listens through the door as a demon voice calms him.
Out of despair, Mary researches reports of similar phenomenon online and finds Jane (Jenn Griffin) - a scared middle-aged woman who's convinced that her child was haunted by a demon. She shows Mary an illustration of a winged beast and tremblingly declares "that's the bitch who's trying to steal your baby". There is one way out of this, Jane advises ... which puts Mary in an impossible position.
All of which takes us to the halfway point of STILL/BORN. To synopsise any further would see me straying into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, director Brandon Christensen's feature debut traverses even darker terrains during its second half.
It's a solid horror flick, anchored by an excellent central performance from Burke. She gets the balance of vulnerability and determination, of love and confusion, just right. Hers is a well-rounded character, one that is easy to warm to and identify with, and one that we hope will find a happy resolution. Which makes her spiral into despair all the more disconcerting.
Supporting performances are all reliable. Moss ensures Jack is conveyed as being a sympathetic character despite his lack of presence where it counts; his intentions are good, but he's a driven man who wants to provide for his family while perhaps not realising that what he needs to do is offer more emotional support. It's good to Ironside in what is effectively a cameo role (two brief scenes), moving away from his tough guy persona of old and being the voice of reason.
Atmosphere and dour production design (all lifeless colours, skewered camera angles) work together to create an oppressive tone from the off. Coupled with an ambiguity - is the lead character mad or is her child really under threat of being possessed by a demon? - this makes for an interesting, highly proficient addition to the current "parental anxiety" strain of modern horror. We saw it done very slickly in THE BABADOOK, but STILL/BORN is more akin to the darker South African film THE LULLABY. In fact, this film and THE LULLABY would make for an excellent "slit your wrists" double-bill for all new mothers out there.
Christensen does fall into some familiar traps. There are a few unnecessary jump scares littered throughout proceedings, and it's nigh on impossible not to liken the nocturnal CCTV footage to the likes of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. But this is largely successful in projecting its slowly incremental panic, thanks to those aforementioned performances and an intelligent script co-penned by the director and Colin Minihan.
If it feels like an A24 calling card, well ... is that a bad thing? Let's just see where Christensen's career goes from here. I see real potential. And this may well end up being an integral stepping stone in Burke's professional arc too. I hope so, I'd like to see more from both of them.
STILL/BORN is being released on UK DVD by Matchbox. We were sent an online screener to review.
The film looks great in its original 2.35:1 ratio, correctly framed and boasting pin-sharp, well-contrasted visuals. Likewise, the English 2.0 audio was clean and consistently clear throughout.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Matchbox Films|