An inevitably unpopular (and long) review of unfortunate indie horror.
When I first heard about the premise of Grace, I immediately wondered how a film that made me think of It’s Alive could be rendered in seriousness. Grace promised to be a dramatic, brooding horror film centered around a young woman who decides to carry her deceased fetus to term only to eventually discover a “living” infant that craves human blood. So basically, it’s a psychotic mommy that must find a way to keep her zombie baby satiated.
What do you mean I'm craaaazy?
Despite the quirky concept, Grace is a deadpan film. In fact, it even has an air of pretention about it. Scenes that linger with feelings instead of purpose, characters with forced psychoses, and new age hippy jabs that aren't paid off. All these things make Grace a perfect contender for the arthouse-drama-suckers at Sundance (no offense to the festival as a whole), but I’m not biting. There’s nothing innately wrong with art-horror or slow burns. Nor does the film need to be shoehorned into the horror genre. Eyes Without a Face, Peeping Tom, or the works of Jess Franco and Dario Argento are some examples of the genre-bending, intellectualism, avant-garde, etc that have molded the international horror scene. Grace, which I can respect for stepping into such rarely-explored territories in American cinema, reminds me of a less disastrous Vinyan.
Baby Grace before she gets big.
The first issue I had with Grace is the characters. They come in two forms: crazy and impotent. While Jordan Ladd certainly doesn’t deliver a poor performance as Madeline, Paul Solet’s direction leads to a lackluster heroine, one that resembles an empty shell who just lets things happen instead of a character that takes action. From the first couple of scenes, we see that Madeline doesn’t really love her husband and is obsessed with having a child beyond all else—so much so that she left her lesbian companion from college for the first sperm shooter she could find. In fact, the death of her husband hardly phases her. It’s also grossly smoothed over by the filmmakers to boot. Madeline’s psychotic tendencies are established early on, but it doesn’t ever feel like a genuine portrayal of maternal obsession. Her mother-in-law, Vivian, is pretty much the same person as she is. Yet, I suppose that Vivian is to be considered the film’s antagonist. We don’t get a foil, we get a carbon copy. Not one, but two psycho mommies who obsess over their offspring. How we are supposed to cheer for Madeline and simultaneously despise Vivian, I am not sure. I hated them both, as they each cling at any chance to nurture a child no matter who they hurt in the process.
Giving birth to zombies is painful. Also see Dawn of the Dead remake.
The men of this film are equally unlikeable. Madeline’s husband, Michael, is impotent—not because he can’t impregnate his wife, but he lets the women of his life push him around. A momma’s boy with no backbone. Terrific. A throw-away character that’s just in the way of the real story. The funniest thing about his character is how much he sucks at driving. In one of the most poorly executed car crashes I’ve seen in a credible film, he somehow dies after an air bag goes off in his face. The scene feels lazy and nothing more than a cursory step to getting rid of the husband character for storytelling convenience. When Madeline crawls out of the vehicle, she doesn’t even care that her husband is dead. Her only concern is her baby. I couldn’t help but think of how well a similar situation worked in Inside—portraying the loss of a husband and the sorrow of raising a child alone in a poetic yet creepy manner. All the sincerity I felt in Inside is absent here. The other husband to the mother-in-law is also just as impotent, allowing Vivian to treat him like dirt and even fulfilling her sick obsession with motherhood by sucking on her nipples as if he was nursing. Paul Solet’s world of spineless men is only rescued by one character. Patricia, Madeline’s ex-lover and midwife, is the saving grace (pun intended of course) of the lineup. As far as I was concerned, she was the standout performance and the only person with an ounce of moral fiber or courage. If it weren’t for Samatha Ferri’s acting talents, I don’t think any of the subtext would have came through.
I could make a joke, but I won't.
My second big complaint with Grace is how long it takes for Madeline to figure out that her beloved infant needs blood. It’s about an hour into the movie until we actually get to the advertised setup of the film: a mother who would kill for her child. By the time it happens, it’s half-hearted and anti-climatic, especially since the movie is only 85 minutes long. What happens during the second act? I hardly remember. Lots of CG flies, some grocery shopping, nipple biting, fly swatting, and my personal favorite: CG flies buzzing in and out of a fake baby’s nose. Yes, we get it, baby Grace becomes a rotting corpse that attracts flies if she doesn’t get blood. I wanted to get to meat of the story, but Grace only skims the surface. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to make a humorless zombie baby movie about the bond of motherhood, then you better give me a damn good portrayal of desperation. I wanted to see the struggle, the realization, the insanity that ensues when a woman decides to murder for the love of her baby. Otherwise, I’m not interested. The filmmakers also set up Madeline’s aversion for meat and her hippy feminist ways with trite exposition in the first act. You’d think that this would be paid off or somehow become important to the story later on, but it never really comes into play. I don’t buy that it’s more difficult to murder people and feed your child blood if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan. Hitler was a vegetarian, so screw that concept.
She's going organic. No formulas here.
I’m not one to tear into a movie without acknowledging where it is successful. Usually, if I don’t appreciate the story, I can find some technical features to talk about. However, I didn’t find Grace all that deserving of praise in that department either. Grace does boast good performances, especially by Jordan Ladd (Madeline), Gabrielle Rose (Vivian), and Samantha Ferris (Patricia), but Solet’s direction makes them less impactful than they could have been. The cinematography had its moments, but also had some technical problems with unintended lens flares and goofy framing, which probably wasn’t helped by the editing. The out-of-focus effects were working at times, but blatantly overused. The color scheme and visual design did establish a somber tone that was well-suited for the subject matter. The major pain in my side was the atrocious sound mixing. I eventually decided to watch the film with subtitles to keep from adjusting the volume every two minutes. Maybe it’s just the DVD? But, it sure didn’t seem like it when Patricia’s dialogue was at least four times louder than Madeline’s in the same scene. I tried not to let something petty like that get in the way of enjoying the film. While I’m sure Solet’s creative choices were careful decisions, I can’t say that these choices led to a great example of filmmaking.
I think you can guess why her nightgown is stained.
I think Grace may have worked better if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Come on, it’s a zombie baby movie. Why not have a laugh or two? I know that I’m going to get some backlash about this one, but I just don’t see the same artistic merit or entertainment value everyone else did. Maybe fans have been so numbed by remakes and Hollywood slickness that any American indie horror hybrid with some originality becomes a quick stimulant emerging from a desire to see new things. After reading hordes of positive reviews on Grace (which I whole-heartedly respect), I am beginning to wonder if there is anyone else that feels the same? Or am I the only one who was underwhelmed?