THE STORY – A morgue technician successfully reanimates the body of a little girl, but she must harvest biological materials from pregnant women to keep the child breathing. When the girl’s mother, a nurse, discovers her baby is alive, the two enter into a deal that forces them both down a dark path.
THE CAST – Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes, Monique Gabriela Curnen, A.J. Lister & Breeda Wool
THE TEAM – Laura Moss (Director/Writer) Brendan J. O’Brien (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
“Birth/Rebirth” is undoubtedly a sort of adaptation of Mary Shelley’s beloved novel Frankenstein, which has had numerous iterations and interpretations since its publication more than 200 years ago. Some versions have soared and made names for themselves, while others have fallen short. Fortunately, “Birth/Rebirth,” a Shudder original that is currently playing in limited release and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is one member of the Frankenstein-esque horror genre that is unique and memorable.
“Birth/Rebirth” is the feature film debut of both Laura Moss (who’s also a writer on the film) and Brendan J. O’Brien (who’s also a producer). Moss’ directing is as assured as is her screenplay with O’Brien – which is slightly predictable, albeit still distinctive enough to stand on its own. The story involves the reanimation of the young daughter (A.J. Lister) of a nurse (Judy Reyes) who is a single mother. After the girl’s sudden death, a morgue technician (Marin Ireland) attempts to reanimate the girl, Lila. It doesn’t take much convincing to convince the mother, Celie, to help Rose, the technician, in keeping the now-undead Lila alive. Problems and questions of morality arise when the two women need to harvest fluids from pregnant women.
Ireland (best known for “Sneaky Pete”) is spot-on as a socially awkward, probably autistic doctor who has spent most of her life trying to reanimate the dead. Ireland’s Rose evidently has an easier time communicating (or working) with the dead and with animals than with living human beings. While it’s never explicitly stated that Rose is on the autism spectrum, she does things that are symptomatic of autistic individuals, such as being annoyed by a phone ringing, having trouble talking to others, and being very detail-oriented. Rose is a complex character, thanks to Ireland’s committed performance and a solid screenplay. Judy Reyes – best known for her work on “Scrubs” – is given a lot of emotional, dramatic material with the role of Celie. It’s a bit strange (at first) to see her back in a nurse’s uniform (after playing a nurse on “Scrubs”), but this role is very different from the one she played on that comedic sitcom. Celie is entirely believable and empathetic as a single mother who would do anything to bring her young daughter back to life, even as she feels conflicted. She and Ireland have great chemistry, which is essential, as there are several scenes when it is just the two of them.
Screenwriter O’Brien, primarily known in the industry for sound department work, has crafted a screenplay alongside Moss that really cares about its characters. In fact, the beginning scenes smartly set up the two principal characters so that by the time we see them interact, we already have a strong sense of their personalities. Rose and Celie are practically polar opposites, yet, as the film progresses, the two become more and more like each other and further away from the people they were before all of this. This type of role reversal is hardly the first of its kind, but O’Brien and Moss weave this so cleverly into the principal Frankenstein narrative of “Birth/Rebirth” that it actually works. The screenplay wisely does not comment on the women’s actions, leaving the viewer to make up their own minds about the morality (or lack thereof) of what’s happening.
Interestingly, it’s unclear when exactly the story of “Birth/Rebirth” occurs. We see and hear cell phones ringing, but then we also see alarm clocks, cable TVs, and VHS tapes. Both Rose and Celie should be able to afford better technology, although perhaps the screenwriters wanted to give the film more of an old-fashioned feel. There’s also some robust and clever editing in the film, which adds to the horror elements of the screenplay. The sometimes-choppy editing is understandably jarring – and maybe not 100 percent effective – yet it pairs well with the film’s generally creepy tone. It all gives the viewer the sense of impending doom, even if you might be able to predict what will happen. Sure, “Birth/Rebirth” contains a fair amount of predictability, especially since the story was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There’s a lot of secret activity and other situations which are easy to foresee. Even the ending, which is somewhat shocking in terms of Rose and Celie’s behavior, is not all that surprising. This is a horror film with no genuine jump scares and not as much violence or graphic imagery as one might expect. However, there is a fair amount of body horror, which, combined with the emphasis on psychological horror, gives the film the edge it needs to thrill audiences. In addition, the original score by Ariel Marx is eerie and unique, matching the [overall] creepy tone of the movie.
Even though “Birth/Rebirth” contains elements of predictability, it packs a lot of material into its 98-minute runtime. It’s a solid horror and sci-fi genre mashup featuring a singular vision from a more-than-capable new director. Moss’ film tackles motherhood/parenthood in unique ways that are sure to get people talking, and it’s a decidedly feminist take on the classic Frankenstein story.