The latest entry in the budding maternal/pregnancy horror subgenre, Birth/Rebirth, proves what fresh talents can create with a unique vision, despite using familiar building blocks. In this case, director and co-writer Laura Moss, making her feature film debut alongside writer Brendan J. O’Brien, borrows core ideas from the inimitable Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein but seats them within the framework of a mother afraid of losing her only child. These Frankenstein-inspired tales are undergoing a creative renaissance thanks to diverse creators and their nontraditional experiences; Birth/Rebirth is one of the better efforts and one of the better maternal horror films of late, bolstered by two emotionally distinct performances and a tight script. However, with what the film brings to the table with its marriage of new and old elements, it needs to improve in other areas of storytelling and entertainment.
Birth/Rebirth follows the exploits of two women: Rose, played by Marin Ireland, an asocial and odd pathologist, and Celie, played by Scrubs star Judy Reyes, a nurse at the same hospital as Rose. Unbeknownst to practically everybody but her pet pig, Rose has been working hard on a serum to revive the dead using fetal biological material from similar organisms. When Celie’s young daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister), dies suddenly and winds up in Rose’s unit, she becomes the mad doctor’s next unwilling test subject. The kicker is that the experiment works, and when Celie finds her daughter “alive,” or so she likes to believe, the two diametrically opposing women must learn to work together to keep the girl’s reanimated state prospering, even if it means acquiring materials from human fetuses in unsavory ways.
Rose and Celie’s moral and ethical conflict, not to mention their starkly different personalities, is where much of the horror, thrills, and intrigue in Birth/Rebirth derive from. Rose is obsessed with her work, hers a purely scientific motivation, using others only to further her research and results. Conversely, Celie is a loving, diligent single mother with an affinity for people, particularly those in need. As the movie progresses, both women exhibit an uneasiness in unexpectedly living together to care for Lila, which gradually becomes more natural, and they begin to mirror some of each other’s characteristics in response to their horrible situation. The movie successfully showcases how willingly people can accept those different than them when working toward a common goal and how those same people can change when influenced by somebody so seemingly opposing. Unfortunately, the ending somewhat betrays this fascinating character development, much like The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, another recent Frankenstein retelling, did with its final sequence. But while the justification in Birth/Rebirth is much easier to accept as a viewer, its finale still feels unsatisfactorily nihilistic.
As for the horror elements, Moss’s debut feature relies on subtleties and the occasionally graphic body horror insert, like a real-life medical textbook image swathed in dull yellow fluorescent light, to turn the audience’s stomachs. However, there is arguably too little of it, and there are no significantly impactful moments to leave a lasting impression—to shock or scare any more than any other modern horror film, which is a shame, as there are opportunities to do so. Lila, the intended “Modern Prometheus” of the story, is practically a background extra and falls to the wayside for most of the film. Sure, there are some slightly captivating moments, but Birth/Rebirth slugs through character development and process enough to render these moments inefficient.
Moss commands her subjects in a promising fashion and sculpts a bleak Frankensteinian universe wherein the only ray of hope is motherly love, adding her name to a growing list of impressive filmmakers of the future. Birth/Rebirth is far from perfect, just like its characters’ scientific endeavors, but there is plenty to enjoy. In particular, new and old mothers will find plenty to horrify and gross themselves out with, and others will undoubtedly find reasons to squirm and look inward at their moral compass too. If only other Universal Monsters properties could follow suit and adopt more creative frameworks, Frankenstein wouldn’t be alone in its ability to inspire such unique tales of the macabre.