28th Aug2017

Frightfest 2017: ‘Still/Born’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Christie Burke, Jesse Moss, Rebecca Olson, Michael Ironside, Jenn Griffin | Written by Brandon Christensen, Colin Minihan | Directed by Brandon Christensen

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For Mary, the joy of her infant son Adam’s birth is overshadowed by the devastating stillborn death of his twin brother Thomas. Concerned husband Jack relocates them to a spacious new home in secluded suburbia while Mary makes fast friends with their neighbor Rachel. But fresh faces, new surroundings, and even post-partum medication can’t spin Mary’s haunted motherhood mindset off its deepening descent into horrifying depression. Soon she’s convinced that an otherworldly evil wants to claim her remaining baby for its own…

Postpartum depression is a very tricky subject matter to approach for any movie, not to mention a horror movie. Hell, even doctors struggle to tackle the subject in real life, so when it comes to reel life filmmakers have to be VERY careful not only to belittle its effect on mothers, or to turn a serious mental health condition into a excuse to demonise a character. Yet when it works in cinema you get films like The Babadook, Cradle Will Fall… and Still/Born.

Whilst they all share the same subject matter they also all share strong central female performances. Christie Burke’s performance is a steady and aympathetic turn from a mourning mother, left alone in a new home with her child whilst her husband goes off to work; to a woman who descends into complete madness, wiling to do unspeakable things to protect her family. Though there’s a huge question mark over whether Mary’s madness is internal or comes from external, more supernatural, forces.

Throughout Still/Born‘s brief, effective and tightly-paced running time, there’s one burning question: is everything Mary, and vicariously the audience, experiences actually happening, or is it all in Mary’s head? There’s evidence presented along the way that swings the story in both directions – camera footage shows Mary acting oddly yet we’ve seen her battling a monster; we hear Mary use an evil monster voice in conversation with her husband (as a joke), so is that Mary’s voice we hear over the baby monitor or a demons?

Best best thing about that question? It is never answered! Audiences might expect Still/Born to chicken-out and reveal the truth but that is not the case. Things play out in such a way that either truth could be the right one – not even the epilogue, which adds nothing to the overall story, offers any real conclusion. Surprisingly, that lack of conclusion, the way in which films story is left open to audience intepretation, is not frustrating but immensely satifying. It’s a bold choice but one the REALLY works.

Of course the ideas with Still/Born are nothing new – if not postpartum fears, but the more overriding parental fear of something happening to our children has appeared in many, many genre films over the years. However director Brandon Christensen and his co-writer Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sands Red) have managed to overcome any familiarity by producing an intelligent and sympathetic postpartum tale that treats the subject with empathy and it’s audience with respect. It’s about time we got back to films that involved the audience figuring things out for themselves rather than spoon-feeding them answers…

**** 4/5

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