What if everything went right for Dr. Frankenstein and Igor, and they became the platonic parents of a beautiful, bouncing, (reanimated) baby Monster? Director Laura Moss and their co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien imagine a sharp, modern version of this best-case scenario (at least, until its own problems come to life) with the horror Birth/Rebirth. With dark irreverence, their transposition is a bolt of lightning into the undead subgenre that’s tight script keeps the two-hander as fresh as the day it was buried.
Put your fan-fiction aside: Mad scientist/forensic pathologist Rose (Marin Ireland) and loving mother/maternity nurse Celie (Judy Reyes) don’t need any nudging to forge their lives together. Just the untimely death and untimelier resurrection of Celie’s young daughter Lila (A.J. Lister). As the two crash together, jammed into a single apartment-laboratory when they’re not taking shifts at their hospital, they become a wry reminder that a family can look like anything: Even two women trying to bring an elementary schooler back to life.
From this working relationship raising a kid (from the dead), Birth/Rebirth nurtures all sorts of amusing, icky insight. The film is a sharp comment on hospital workaholics who, either through ego, altruism or a mix of both, can’t stop themselves from bringing it home with them. They might not inherently be playing God like Herr Doktor, but they’re certainly meddling with the stuff of life—and once you have some power over that, it’s gotta be hard to sit by and do nothing with it. On the lighter side, Birth/Rebirth draws funny connections between the undead and children in general. Who couldn’t imagine Frankenstein’s creation moaning in displeasure if its Cocomelon got turned off?
But most trenchantly, Celie and Rose get together in an industry filled with bumbling, idiotic men. The medical world acts as a magnifying microcosm, where women need to look out for themselves, or risk their lives hoping that they’ll be listened to. Male doctors take the easy way during delivery, not caring about the mother’s body. Husbands throw around the word “hysterical” like real parodies of themselves. These men are simply sperm factories, used by both women for their own ends—Celie conceived through IVF while Rose, weirdo that she is, jerks donations out of barflies in the bathroom.
If that last idea arched your eyebrow, Birth/Rebirth has plenty more in store for you, most flashily through Rose. She’s clinical and strange—like a Hannibal character that burst from Bryan Fuller’s heightened, psychosexual Hieronymus Bosch painting and into our world. She has a pet pig and a freezer full of viscera. Ireland is full serial killer mode, softened (or at least balanced) by Reyes’ emotions. Rose’s intense, methodical, roboticism and Celie’s motherly emotion both lead to intense negative places compared to the multifaceted world around them, but together, they have a perfectly hideous symbiotic relationship.
This grows in our eyes as the apartment they share becomes warmer and tighter-knit compared to the dark and dour in city livin’ Moss and their cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj depict. Chotrungroj, who had a fest hit last year with Palm Trees and Power Lines, is no stranger to brutal clarity. The gruesome experiments and surgeries are displayed with an off-putting evenness. Only occasionally does Moss assault us with something truly distorted and gross, and when they do, they make it count. The rest of the time, their obvious fascination with the medical world and the inherent freakiness of its devices shades the film’s horror with clinical, technological detail. And that’s beyond needles and scalpels: We become well-acquainted with plastic semen collectors, spindling IV tubes, yellow ultrasound gel and bone marrow aspirators. As fantastical as the story is, the medical research that contributed to the unsettling mise en scène was worth every sleepless night—the crunches and squelches are all the more stomach-churning after we understand the devices creating them.
While the film starts relying on a few contrivances after a solid set-up—its faith in itself wavering a bit between its great premise and banger of a conclusion—Birth/Rebirth is a clever, tight little horror that will leave sickos (like me) smiling and shaking our heads at Moss’ bravado. Disgusting reveal on top of disgusting reveal adds to a movie that innately understands what scares us (morgues are freaky, and they don’t need to host The Autopsy of Jane Doe for that to be true) and what brings us together (our children and our achievements). The horror debut’s easy definition as a well-worn concept turned on its head serves a good purpose. It’ll get more eyes on it than it otherwise would. But Moss’ creation is more than a sentient pile of parts with a fresh coat of mortuary makeup: It’s a savvy, gross, black-hearted gem with a humanity all its own.
Director: Laura Moss
Writer: Laura Moss, Brendan J. O’Brien
Starring: Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes, A.J. Lister, Breeda Wool
Release Date: January 19, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.