Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grace (2009)

I’ve been looking forward to Paul Solet’s full-feature Grace ever since I saw his short of the same name. Grace deals with a lot of my biggest fears – pregnancy, children, motherhood, etc. As a woman, the prospect of pregnancy scares the poo outta me and is one of the many reasons I don’t want to have kids. Also, the alien nature of babies just creeps me out, what with their big googly eyes, babbling language, constant crying and incessant hunger, not to mention how much self-sacrifice goes into raising a child. Grace taps into these fears and more, but its not just to unnerve women…men will also be very perturbed by Grace’s turn of events.

Grace tells the story of Madeline (Jordan Ladd) and Michael (Stephen Park), a married couple trying to conceive a baby. When Madeline finally gets pregnant, she is determined to deliver the baby au natural with a midwife instead of going to a hospital, much to the chagrin of her meddling and traditional mother-in-law, Vivian (Gabrielle Rose). Madeline is also a committed vegan and is very eco-conscious, which irks Vivian even more.

Madeline and Michael joyously await the birth of their baby girl, but a tragic car accident leaves both her husband and her unborn baby dead. Against the wishes of her midwife, Patricia (Samantha Ferris), and mother-in-law, Madeline decides to carry the infant to term. When the baby is delivered, it miraculously comes back to life and Madeline names her Grace.

Madeline dotes on Grace, but she soon notices there’s something not quite right with the baby. Grace attracts flies, smells a bit funky, gets bleeding sores on her skin and seems to prefer human blood to breast milk…

Soon, Vivian starts to nag Madeline about seeing her precious granddaughter and even going so far as to send the family doctor, Richard Sohn (Malcolm Stewart), to check up on her. With Grace craving more and more blood, though, Madeline isn’t exactly ready to show her off. Patricia starts poking around too, concerned about her friend but more interested in putting the moves on the new baby momma. As Madeline deals with the mounting external pressure of intruders, she also tries her best to satiate the hungry Grace…but she soon realizes that her own blood will not be enough to satisfy the bloodthirsty babe…

While more subdued and slower-paced than the shocking short, this feature-length Grace still packs a punch. The woman-centric issues of pregnancy and self-sacrificing motherhood are rarely featured in horror, so it’s nice to see these addressed. The prospect of going through a pregnancy and giving birth to another person is scary enough, but think of if your baby was born…unnatural…how much would you sacrifice for them then? The bond between a mother and child are strong, so like Madeline, I’m willing to bet you would sacrifice everything and anything for them. Madeline breaks her own ethical beliefs to ensure that Grace gets what she hungers for…blood…and is prepared to stop anyone that would try to take her baby away. Sacrifice and a mother’s bond to her child are just a few of the many themes explored in Grace and are among the many intelligent layers to this intriguing film.

Though Grace isn’t your “typical” horror film, the script and story are smart and I squeamishly enjoyed its many different layers, including the “meat is murder” subtext that peppers the film (the real footage of animals being slaughtered/tortured will unnerve many). The character of Madeline was well-written as she was strong, resolute and firm in all her beliefs – beliefs that would soon be challenged by her bloodthirsty monster of an infant. And yet, the film never falls into being an exploitative “killer baby” picture, but maintains a somber, tragic and straightforward tone throughout its running time.

Jordan Ladd absolutely glows as Madeline. Her portrayal of a mother who will do whatever it takes to care for her child felt incredibly realistic, even though Ladd herself has never had any children. The fact that she was able to tap into such a maternal role is amazing in of itself, but she actually made us care about the heartbreaking tragedy of her situation. In fact, all of the women in the film portrayed very strong, maternal roles. Gabrielle Rose as mother-in-law Vivian had her own psychological issues, including being obsessed with being a mother and wanting to breast feed again though she was now a grandma. Rose played the condescending Vivian with a “mother-knows-best” vibe that will make your skin crawl. Even the knowledgeable midwife Patricia, in a commanding performance by Samantha Ferris, was concerned with Madeline and was constantly checking up on her, though most of that came from personal feelings she still had for Madeline; the two used to be lovers in college. Each and every one of the female characters was written to be a strong woman, which is quite refreshing for a horror film! The men, on the other hand, were mainly secondary characters or villains, as is the case with the creepy Dr. Richard Sohn, played by Malcolm Stewart, who almost orders Madeline induced early after she starts having chest pains…until Patricia intervenes. And Dr. Sohn gives Madeline one of the most intrusive and disturbing home exams I’ve been unfortunate enough to witness! It is always a pleasure to see a horror movie that features smart, caring women as the main characters instead of just relegating them to T & A shots or “scream queen” roles.

Besides excelling at writing a compelling script and engaging characters, Solet’s direction is also impeccable. The sharp contrast between the early scenes that are bathed in bright sunshine and warm colors and later scenes where shots are veiled in shadows, sickly greens and muted colors complements the accompanying action perfectly. There are also great shots showing Grace’s room adorned with fly traps and the birthing scene itself is quite traumatic.

Solet has taken a dramatic turn away from the current crop of immediate, in-your-face mainstream “horror” that scares with jumpy editing and fake frights. Instead, he has crafted a restrained film that manages to crawl under your skin and squirm there, increasing the discomfort until the satisfying finale. It’s not a perfect film by any means, and is definitely not for everyone, but it is a very well-done and quiet character study that shows off Solet’s skill as both as a writer and director as well as the amazing range of its actors.

Grace slowly gestates, until it ripens from quiet character study to full-blown horror show. If you can enjoy the slowly unfolding dread, Grace definitely delivers.

Order it on Amazon!

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