Friday, April 10, 2009


Ever heard a pregnant woman use the expression “a healthy glow” to describe her own condition? Didn’t think so. The “miracle” of childbirth may be cause for celebration, but it’s also, by all accounts, one hell of an ordeal—a disruption of the corporeal self, a stretching, bloating distortion of the flesh, a painful and emotionally taxing trial of the body and mind. Now imagine if that totally natural discomfort were compounded by something unnatural, by a fear of some inscrutable foul play, by the unshakable suspicion that there was something… wrong with the life you were carrying inside you. That’s the anxiety that drives so-called “birth thrillers,” an enduring strain of spooky movie sub-genre that’s mutant gestation can be traced, via a ropey umbilical cord of influence, way back to 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. What could be scarier, argued Roman Polanski’s creeping-dread classic, than the hijack of one’s own body, its transformation into incubator of ire works and lynchpin of patriarchal conspiracy? I haven’t checked the numbers, but I’d imagine that nightmare of warped domesticity did for maternity wards what Psycho did for showers, Jaws did for beaches, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did for southern gothic, roadtrip detours.

Polanski’s Baby remains the yardstick in which to measure all birth thrillers—bad news indeed for a recent pair of European variations, both offering a very dim echo of the pounding paranoia Roman conjured some four decades ago. Puffball is the latest lunatic excursion from Nicholas Roeg, who made one of the all time great, fever dream shockers, 1973’s haunting Don’t Look Now. As those who have been keeping up with the Brit iconoclast can surely attest, it’s been a bumpy ride from there: Roeg’s unique talents seem to have gone the way of his sanity, a point that can’t really be stressed enough when talking about his new gonzo shitstorm.

Shot on a budget one might generously call shoestring, Puffball flips the gender of its scheming antagonist, recasting Polanski’s nefarious fertility plot as the black-magic attempts of a barren, middle-aged shrew (Miranda Richardson, gamely committing to this utter nonsense) to burgle the unborn of her newly pregnant, architect neighbor (Kelly Reilly). This proves, alas, the only mildly interesting conceit of Roeg’s crazed picture, a pungent bad brew of pagan mysticism, histrionic overacting, and raw, animalistic sex. To acknowledge the writer-director’s failure in building an appropriately ominous tone—a measure of suspense, a palpable sense of menace or unease—is to suggest that he ever commits, even in the slightest, to any consistent tone. The film’s bat-shit delirium, characterized by wonky visual motifs and bizarre, folk-rock musical cues, would be more endearing were it not accompanying such a mind-numbingly tedious narrative. With its TV-skimpy production values, pregnant (har har) pauses, and hilariously awful digital effects (check those CGI cumshots!), Puffball resembles nothing so much as a “Masters of Horror” episode directed by Adult Swim’s dadaist comic duo Tim and Eric. Except instead of fifteen minutes, it goes on for two hours, each of which feel about as protracted as a full term pregnancy.

By comparison, Belgian birth thriller Left Bank looks like genre poetry. Director Pieter Van Hees envelops his narrative, about a pretty college track star (Eline Kuppens) who becomes the target of a malevolent cult, in a kind of hazily hypnotic atmosphere, one that might actually induce a few stray goose bumps of shuddery anticipation. (A pulsing, clicks-and-whistles score and authentically shady, underbelly-of-Antwerp milieu work overtime to enhance the mood.) Oh, but there’s the problem: Left Bank is all atmosphere. It takes Mia Farrow’s crisis of instinct—is something wrong or is it all in her head?—and stretches it waaaaaay out, dillydallying through its threadbare plot when it should be methodically tightening those screws. There’s no urgency here, as Kuppens, whose sullen tomboy mystique grows wearisome right quick, never elevates her internal threat level beyond “mild concern.” When the shit finally hits the fan, culminating in an icky, sticky ending as bonkers as anything in Puffball, it feels less a cathartic release of mounting tension and more a jar-you-awake transmission from some livelier potboiler… like, say, something Polanski might have cooked up in his unholy artist’s womb. Forty years on, and his Baby remains the last word on in utero horror. Forget these imitators. They’re stillborn. Puffball: D+. Left Bank: C.


Danimal said...

jesus, just watch Inside already, will ya? Like, tonight. Go and buy it. First thing. Seriously.

A.A. Dowd said...

I totally will. Jeesh. It's actually coming this week, via Netflix. Considering that everyone I know who's seen it describes parts they couldn't even watch, I'm more than a little apprehensive. I'm something of a gore hound, but that ending just sounds flat-out horrifying.

Sara said...

An excellent take on two not-so-excellent flicks. In fact, I'd argue that the poetic blooms you use to analyze Puffball aren't even good enough for the movie. I can't believe I looked forward to that movie for two years! Left Bank was disappointing.

And, you should watch Inside this week because if you don't, I'll staple cockroaches to your eyelids. ;-)

Well...maybe not. But I will biff you!

A.A. Dowd said...

Too far. Even as a goof.