Baby Boom: Looking Back at The Unborn (1991)

Matty coos and cuddles this creepy Corman/Flender/Elliott made bambino.

From Coppola, Cameron and Scorsese, to Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and Joe Dante, the list of filmmakers who cut their teeth under the guidance of Roger Corman is as legendary as the B-movie titan himself. However, for every well-known name to have honed their craft at Corman’s school of low-budget ingenuity, there’s a multitude of other, often unheralded men and women. Two of the most unheralded are Rodman Flender and Mike Elliott. Nowadays, Flender and Elliott are known for such studio-funded genre fare as Idle Hands (1998), and shepherding a bunch of Rob Zombie films, respectively, but, back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the pair of them spearheaded a wealth of programmers for Corman’s Concorde/New Horizons conveyor belt.  

Harvard grad Flender started working for Corman in 1986. He was hired as Concorde’s director of publicity and marketing after Corman was impressed with his student film, The Bloody Mutilators. As Flender told John Wooley in Gorezone:

“[The Bloody Mutilators] was a mix of live action and animation, and it was kind of a satire on how Madison Avenue uses sex to sell things. But it was pretty gory, and I didn’t know quite what to do with it. A lot of my peers at Harvard had made documentaries and one guy sold his film to HBO for $10,000, but I had no idea what to do with mine. So I thought ‘Who could I send this to who would understand it and maybe give me a job?’ Roger Corman seemed like a natural.” [1] 

In spring 1988, Flender was promoted to Concorde’s vice president of production. 

Mike Elliott, meanwhile, had entered the Corman fold as a gofer on Jim Wynorski’s Big Bad Mama II (1987) and was serving as an assistant to Corman’s producer wife, Julie, when Flender’s old marketing job came up for grabs. With Flender’s blessing, Elliott seized the opportunity and, soon, a similar set of circumstances arose: having overseen the likes of Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls (1989), The Terror Within (1989), and Body Chemistry (1990), Flender was stepping down as a production exec in favour of directing. Elliott took the production gig and quickly earned his producer’s wings on Ultra Warrior (1990) and The Terror Within II (1991). Elliott and Flender would then cross paths again proper, when Corman tasked Elliott with overseeing Flender’s directorial debut, THE UNBORN (1991). 

Written by the now sadly defunct partnership of John Brancato and Michael Ferris, The Unborn’s script, credited to their ‘Henry Dominic’ pseudonym [2], had landed across Flender’s desk in mid ‘89 and he was immediately taken with its mood and themes. Struck by the script’s Polanski-esque approach to horror, specifically its merging of Rosemary’s Baby’s (1968) ‘pregnancy gone wrong’ hook with Repulsion’s (1965) savage psychological probing, and emboldened by the topicality of its gene-splicing premise — furthered when Flender caught a Barbara Walters ABC News special on scientifically augmented ‘designer’ babies as he readied to shoot — the neophyte helmer believed he could fashion an effective creeper for a price; an inexpensive yet mature frightener in an era when the genre’s popularity had waned amidst a deluge of increasingly impoverished, daft, and generally teen-centric splatter flicks (NB — Flender’s words, not mine!). 

Of course, as The Unborn was being bankrolled by Corman, a certain degree of compromise had to be made in order for Flender to bring his vision to screen. Ever one to have an eye on the bottom line, Corman agreed to let Flender go wild with the dark psychological stuff as long as he ticked a few commercial boxes in between — chiefly, by throwing in a brilliantly rubbery, It’s Alive (1974)-style monster baby (designed and created by Joe Podnar) in the film’s final third which the wily exploitation maven reasoned would appeal to the same folk who turned Child’s Play (1988) into a massive hit for United Artists a few years prior. Thankfully, it was a happy medium: as his jocular epics Leprechaun 2 (1994) and Idle Hands have since proven, Flender might be serious when it comes to subtext (crib sheet: the fear of growing up, the loss of control, and the loss of your nearest and dearest are what should be termed ‘Flenderish’), but he’s not without humour.

That said, The Unborn isn’t a broad comedy horror. Rather, the uneasy chuckles Flender evokes are dry and ironic, and are used in a manner reminiscent of the nervous giggles that subtly laced his mentor Corman’s classics, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). They exist to enhance and offset the horror, tricking you into a false sense of security and duping you into thinking you’ve been spared. And in The Unborn, Flender refuses to let the humour thwart the nasty, FX-laden goods, moments that include: weird Cronenbergian growths; a wince-inducing stabbing of a pregnant belly; and a strange, surreal, and truly icky sequence wherein the film’s lead, Brooke Adams, confronts her own aborted foetus in a junk-strewn alley.   

Deception is the key to the film’s visuals, too. The first feature photographed by future Chris Nolan stalwart Wally Pfister [3], The Unborn’s softly focused aesthetic masks an aloof, sterile core. Initially appearing warm and inviting, the normal, pastel-coloured, everyday banalities of the expectant Adams and her husband Jeff Hayenga’s middle class existence slowly descend into a curtly observed arm’s length nightmare as Adams succumbs to a whirlwind of prenatal stress. It’s as visceral as it is emotionally gruelling: we’re forced to watch Adams’ breakdown at a coolly cruel distance, her character presented as much an experiment to us as she is to James Karen’s IVF specialist — a man who, like Pfister’s photography, hides his sinister motivations behind an uncomfortably pleasant façade. 

Though Flender drops the ambiguity of whether Adams is simply going nuts or whether it’s really happening at around the halfway point (Karen’s dead-eyed stare, his other patients experiencing similarly gooey problems, and the aforementioned abortion/rubber monster baby are the tells), it’s fun trying to guess for a while. Swathes of scenes are shot almost exclusively from Adams’ perspective, and the expertly delivered pockets of quiet exposition paint a detailed picture of who her character is (she suffered a miscarriage in the past and her family is plagued with a history of mental illness). Naturally, Adams’ performance helps. She’s excellent: vulnerable yet strong-minded and wholly believable, Flender waggishly encourages her to channel Mia Farrow, Catherine Deneuve, and her own paranoiac masterclass in Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of Body Snatchers (1978), and amplifies the direness and drama of her situation with a steely, ethereal electronic score by music producer Michael R. Smith and new wave/synth legend Gary Numan.    

“[Rodman] was a fan of an old B-side, ‘Asylum,’ which he felt evoked exactly the right mood for the movie,” wrote Numan in his autobiography [4]. “Mike and I saw it as a ‘door opening’ opportunity, as writing music for films was something I’d long wanted to do. We wrote well over a hundred pieces of music which we would regularly send off to Rodman in California. At first we didn’t even have a script, so we just wrote things that we thought sounded a bit creepy. Then we got a very rough cut of the film, which helped a lot. Finally, Rodman came over and stayed for a while and helped us shape the final pieces of the music… I was very proud of the music and I was surprised [when then record label] IRS didn’t seem the slightest bit interested in releasing it.” [5] 

Fairly well-received critically (genre-wise, The Unborn was nominated for Best Indie/Low-Budget Picture at Fangoria’s 1991 Golden Chainsaw Awards, with Adams and Karen also bagging nods for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor) and a healthy little earner during its US theatrical run in 1991, The Unborn enjoyed further success on tape, leading Corman to sanction Elliott into producing The Unborn II in 1994: an entertaining if inferior and ludicrously schlockier sequel that Adams herself was originally courted to direct until Concorde regular Rick Jacobsen was drafted in. After all, by this time, Flender had flown the nest: Flender had a first look deal with Corman but, by and large, he was actively pursuing other, bigger projects instead. Here in the UK, The Unborn went straight-to-video, hitting shelves as a rental in early 1992 via RCA/Columbia offshoot, 20:20 Vision.

[1] New Talent is Unborn by John Wooley, Gorezone #19, Fall 1991
[2] ‘Henry Dominic’/’Henry Dominick’ was the nom de plume the aspirational duo employed at the start of their careers, whereupon they wrote this and Watchers II (1990) for Corman; Mindwarp (1991) and Severed Ties (1992) for the short-lived Fangoria Films; and a trio of military hardware pics, Flight of the Black Angel (1991), Into the Sun (1991), and Interceptor (1992), for Kevin M. Kallberg and Oliver G. Hess. They’d go on to pen David Fincher’s The Game (1997) and two Terminator sequels, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator: Salvation (2009), prior to dissolving their union in 2015.
[3] Pfister isn’t the only ‘star of the future’ nestled in The Unborn: Lisa Kudrow pops up in a brief role as a receptionist.
[4] Praying to the Aliens: An Autobiography by Gary Numan with Steve Malins, 1997, André Deutsch Limited.
[5] Interestingly, despite IRS’ lack of enthusiasm, thirty-six of the tracks that Smith and Numan composed for The Unborn would be released by Numa Records in 1995 as Numan’s instrumental album, ‘Human’.

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