Conceptual anxieties, pregnant panic and the birth pangs of horror
The second Golden Age of Horror was born premature. For though associated with the 1970s, it began in 1968, with the arrival of two films that would forever change the genre landscape: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Redefining the zombie as a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary, Romero’s low-budget shocker focused on death, the theme with which all human experience ends and with which the horror genre is most closely associated. Polanski’s film, conversely, explored the other end of the spectrum, dealing with the fears that can surround maternity and birth, where all our lives begin. This was horror at its most (literally) conceptual, and it would beget a preoccupation with panic-stuffed pregnancy that the genre has ever since been unable to get fully out of its system. INFERNAL arrives on DVD from 24th August, 2015, courtesy of Signature Entertainment in which the unrivalled joy of a newborn baby rapidly descends into fear of the highest order, we take a look at the most gruesome horror films that feature pregnancy, birth and disturbed children.
As newlywed couple Sophia and Nathan move into their new home together Sophia delivers the news that she’s pregnant. Nathan digests the news, proposes to her and they get married, hoping to live happily ever after... The couple welcome their first child into the world shortly after getting married, but their joy quickly turns to panic when the young girl starts acting strangely. The unrivalled joy of a newborn baby rapidly descends into fear of the highest order when unexplainable things start happening around the house. Fearing their daughter could be possessed, the parents call in a priest to perform an exorcism, but when that goes horribly wrong, the parents start to wonder if they will ever be able to rid their daughter of the evil power lurking within her...
Caught between her oldworld Catholicism and her hip metropolitan modernity, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) has just moved into a New York apartment with a shady history, hoping to make “a new beginning” there. Impregnated while passed out in bed, Rosemary grows ever more anxious and paranoid about the intentions of her self-absorbed, controlling husband Guy (John Cassavetes) and the interfering old couple next door – and once the seed of an idea about witchcraft has been planted inside her, it grows and grows as her pregnancy continues, until eventually some sort of truth must out.
Key to Polanski’s film is the question, never fully resolved, of whether Rosemary is genuinely falling prey to a Satanic coven, or suffering from “the pre [and post] partum crazies”, as she struggles, like all mothers, to come to terms with the thing growing inside her, both a part of herself and something other. For the society that Rosemary is entering – and helping to build – fills her with doubt, reflecting the ambivalent feelings that many would have harboured about the changing world of the Sixties. Though born of the recombinant materials of the past, babies are the future – and in turbulent ’68, the future, though pregnant with revolutionary possibilities, seemed very uncertain.
Relocated to contemporary Paris and considerably expanded (padded, even) in length, Agnieszka Holland’s 2014 two-part reimagining for television fills in the narrative gaps, focusing as much on the Satanic seduction of Guy as the infernal insemination of Rosemary. Yet for all its creepy set-pieces, this Rosemary remake entirely aborts the original’s crucial ambiguity, and so throws out the baby with the bathwater. Polanski’s is definitely the daddy.
The biology of birth – the blood, the pain, all that icky anatomy – makes it the perfect subject for body horror, and in particular for male anxieties about feminine physicality and function. So in Ridley Scott’s ‘seminal’ SF-horror Alien (1979), the conventional modalities of reproduction are overturned as Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt, indeed) is orally raped by a newly hatched alien ‘facehugger’, and then internally incubates and gives chest-bursting birth to the creature’s next lifestage – aboard a spaceship whose computer system is ironically named ‘Mother’. By the time the film’s heroine, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), has out-toughed and outlived many male colleagues and crash-landed into an all-male penal planet in David Fincher’s long-gestating Alien3 (1992), she is herself carrying the embryo of an alien, and struggling to hold onto her own agency as everyone wants a piece of mother and unborn daughter. Scott’s prequel Prometheus (2012), ‘consciously uncoupled’ from the franchise that birthed it, sees sterile archaeologist Shaw (Noomi Rapace) undergoing immaculate conception via her partner’s alien-infected sperm, and then forced to perform an invasive Caesarean section upon herself using surgical equipment designed exclusively for men.
Meanwhile, the Strause brothers’ hybridised spin-off sequel Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) shows a ‘Predalien’ let loose in a maternity ward, graphically pumping multiple large ova down the throat of an already gravid woman whose waters have just broken. It is a grotesque spectacle not easily forgotten, even if it is perhaps over-egging the pregnancy pudding.
With its extra-terrestrial invaders, weird face rapes and rapid gestations, Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro (1982) might sound like an English Alien ripoff, but the film also ‘delivers’ something new to the reproductive cycle: the sight of a recently impregnated woman giving birth, agonising and ultimately fatal to herself, to a fully grown man who then, as the pièce de résistance, bites through his own umbilical cord.
Not that such extreme births cannot be survived. In Miike Takashi’s unclassifiable Gozu (2003), the yakuza Minami (Hideko Sone) is tasked with escorting Ozaki (Aikawa Sho), a senior ‘brother’ for whom Minami harbours repressed homoerotic feelings, to a strange town to bump him off. In fact Ozaki has a heart attack en route, but Minami must spend the rest of the film searching for Ozaki’s missing corpse. In the final sequence, Ozaki witnesses a young woman (Yoshino Kimika) give birth to the fully-formed and now living Ozaki – and we last see the three of them walking arm in arm down the street, in a ménage à trois where sexuality has become incestuously confused.
Even that is topped, though, by the threesome in Z is for Zygote, Chris Nash’s contribution to The ABCs of Death 2 (2014). A man heads out while his wife is in labour, instructing her to eat ‘portlock root’ to “slow down the baby until I can get here from town.” Cut to 13 years later, and the woman, now enormously pregnant, conducts lengthy conversations about her sense of abandonment with the grown child that is still in her belly. When the portlock runs out, the baby, promising it will never leave its mother, guts and bones her from the inside and fills out her skin, essentially merging itself with her body. Finally the husband does return, hoping to try make another baby with his ‘wife’.
What with the morning sickness, the discomfort of increased weight, and eventually the intense, body-splitting trauma of labour and delivery, pregnancy is associated with physical pain and maternal sacrifice (or ‘materdom’). Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s bludgeoning Inside (2007) dramatises all the torment of this process, as the very pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis), who recently survived a head-on collision that took her husband’s life, spends one last night alone with her mixed feelings on impending maternity (she is scheduled for an induced birth in the morning). Except that she is not alone – for a mysterious woman in black (Béatrice Dalle) has come inside, looking like death itself, to claim her due. Over one long night the two will bloodily contest ownership of Sarah’s unborn foetus, in a grimly grotesque parody of the struggles and travails of birth.
The short sharp shock of a car accident is often used as a vivid analogue of birth pangs. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) opens with a primal scene, as Amelia Vanek is being rushed to hospital in labour, a violent crash both kills her husband Oskar and ushers in the arrival of her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) – and the deep scars that this simultaneous death- and birthday leaves in Amelia will, seven years later, come back to haunt the Vaneks.
Similarly, in Paul Solet’s Grace (2009), Madeline (Jordan Ladd) is widowed by an accident that also kills the baby in her belly, but she refuses to let go, insisting on carrying the dead foetus to full term – while her post-menopausal mother-in-law Vivian (Gabrielle Rose) wants to mother (and breastfeed) the baby herself. All that maternal madness engenders a miracle – and a monster – that “needs special food.” Madeline’s cat Jonesy shares its name with the on-board pet in Alien – much as Grace shares that film’s interest in perverted birth.
Meanwhile, Zach Parker’s Proxy (2013) begins with what ought to be every expectant mother’s nightmare. As Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) leaves an ob/gyn checkup, she is attacked in the street, knocked unconscious, and then battered repeatedly about her pregnant belly with a brick. In emergency surgery, doctors remove her foetus by C-section, too late to save it – and yet, as we gradually get to know the bruised Esther and another woman (Alexa Havins) whom she befriends at a child bereavement group, these two reveal themselves as like-minded fantasists with some very strange ideas in embryo. And so it becomes clear that some women are maybe just not cut out to be mothers – except of invention.
If Alien presents male viewers with the nightmare of having to endure the kind of labour pain that so many women go through as a matter of course, then Jacob Vaughan’s Bad Milo! (2014) plays out the same fears for grotesque laughs. It opens with an ultrasound – but the patient is not a mother-to-be, but Duncan (Ken Marino), and his ‘baby’ is in fact a large growth in his colon. That tumour will grow inside Duncan, and eventually, painfully, emerge from his rectum as Milo, the monstrous (yet baby-like) incarnation of its stressed-out host’s repressed id – and Duncan, despite his stated fear of parenthood, must learn not just to let out the beast (repeatedly), but to mother it.
The final image of Matsumoto Hitoshi’s extreme sex comedy R100 (2013) is of its protagonist, the salaryman Takafumi Katayami (Ichi the Killer‘s Omori Nao), sporting his own very pregnant belly. The path that has led him to that state is hardly a straight one. With his wife in a three-year coma, his son coming of age in a single-parent family, and his own renascent, guilt-riddled libido tearing him apart, Takafumi signs up with an exclusive gentlemen’s SM club, and learns painful lessons in how to combine the rôles of father, pervert and, yes, mother.
Conception happens when sperm collides with egg, creating an admixture of two different genetic codes. Yet this need not be an altogether natural process. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Golblum) finds himself in sexless genetic union with an insect via an experimental teleporter. Most of the film is concerned with Brundle’s tragic Kafka-esque metamorphosis – but a key subplot sees Brundle impregnating his friend Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) with his mutant seed. After having a nightmare in which she births a giant pupa, ‘Ronnie’ declares, “I want it out of my body now!” – but before she can have an abortion, Seth kidnaps her, hoping to fuse her, himself and their unborn baby into “a family of three merged together in one body.” Seth is killed before that can happen – but we never do find out what happens to their baby… at least, not until The Fly II.
Genetics prove just as madly incestuous in Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009), in which childless biochemist couple Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) unethically engineer a female creature from animal and human (indeed Elsa’s) DNA, and secretly raise it as both specimen and baby. Growing rapidly, the adolescent ‘Dren’ (Delphine Chanéac) seduces Clive before changing sex and raping Elsa. The film ends with a pregnant Elsa agreeing to carry to term the monster within.
If both The Fly and Splice represent successful genetic fusions of the science fiction and horror genres, then Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring (2014) is an unexpected hybrid of horror and romance – allowing this article to end on something like a positive note. The heroine of Spring, Louise (Nadia Hilker), is a mutant who can regenerate herself – and remain eternally youthful – by getting pregnant every 22 years and then using the embryonic stem cells to metamorphose into a rejuvenated merger of herself and her partner.
Only now, for the first time in two millennia, she is falling in love with her ‘donor’, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) – even if that love may lead to a more normal birth, and the passing down of Louise’s freakish physical makeup to the next generation. This is a film of monstrous transformations and aberrant biochemistry, but at its heart Spring addresses the Darwinian pursuit of self-replication that lies at the heart of every procreative act. In its exploration of both mortality and the infinite via a very unusual form of pregnancy, Spring delivers alright.
By Anton Bitel