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Baby Got Bite

MOVIE REVIEW
Grace (2009)

GRC 04.25.08 (023)
Seattle International Film Festival

Not all short works of fiction need to be stretched into full-lengths. Imagine an entire movie based upon the plot of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” — 90 minutes of a depressed guy locked in his bedroom, succumbing to eerie sounds and claustrophobic paranoia. If handled properly, the set-up could make for the greatest Roman Polanski creepshow of all time; more than likely, though, it’d becomes the horror equivalent of a film based on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — intentionally scary, that is.

Paul Solet’s “Grace” is infinitely better than “A Night at the Roxbury,” but it suffers from a similar problem. Based on the first-time feature filmmaker’s 2006 short of the same name, “Grace” explores a horrific mother-and-child relationship filtered through an “It’s Alive” prism. An unborn child dies while still in the womb, but mommy, Madeline Matheson (a brave performance by Jordan Ladd), still goes through with the birth; miraculously, the baby comes to life once in its mother’s arms. Expected corpse-to-infant complications come into play, replacing Gerber’s nourishment with a formula for homicide. With its clever, daring premise, Mr. Solet’s tale worked wonderfully as a short; as a feature, unfortunately, there’s not enough narrative meat to pad Mr. Solet’s unsettling visuals and knack for paralyzing mood. “Grace” leaves one wishing that Mr. Solet could get his hands on an unfilmed David Lynch script. The film’s disorientation is nearly Lynchian. Mr. Solet is clearly gifted and primed for bigger things, but his direction far outweighs his script work here.

From the film’s opening frame onward, “Grace” is unwavering in its dread, operating with a bleakness that treats viewers’ attention like lungs submerged in water. Humorless horror fans will be in their glory, since there’s not a laugh within an ear’s shot or a single break from the tension. Madeline’s domestic life is already a tense from multiple angles prior to any living dead conception — she’s less than satisfied by her stuffed-shirt husband, and her uptight mother-in-law, Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), makes her dissatisfaction of Madeline no mystery. An awkward dinner scene establishes this dysfunctional dynamic nicely, and when a car accident leaves both Madeline’s husband and the fetus in her belly deceased, Mr. Solet opens the narrative up to develop Vivian’s grief as well. At this point, “Grace” feels right on track, ready to introduce the horror as a plot-mover toward an unpredictable payoff.

As baby Grace factors into the plot, Mr. Solet focuses more on presentation than story. The film’s dynamite sound design does a masterful job at distracting from the script’s thinness. Pulsating heartbeats boom at a nonstop clip. Thick strings constantly remind the audience that all’s not right in Madeline’s home, where she’s secluded herself and Grace as the newborn continues to show grotesque traits. Mr. Solet’s slick use of sudden close-ups, sideways camera angles and cloudy framing add the film’s overall sensory impact. It’s style towering over substance, though.

“Grace” is full several intriguing set-ups that go nowhere fast. The battle of wills between Madeline and her disapproving in-law is resolved abruptly and bloodily, as is an underlying lesbian subplot that’s hinted at intelligently throughout the film but is then squandered in a gratuitous, laughable final shot. Without spoiling the film’s conclusion, let’s just say that certain characters undergo stereotypically butch lesbian makeovers, and an itch to give the audience one last dose of gore is unwisely scratched.

Even with its storytelling weaknesses apparent, “Grace” is still creepy enough to emerge victorious. Mr. Solet has an impressive ability to turn routine set-ups into showstoppers, particularly a painful birthing scene elevated into a pulverizing nightmare by rigid camerawork and a violent score. “Grace” is a prime example of a short film that’s best served as such, a lean idea injected with filmmaking steroids — drug test, failed. To its credit, though, Mr. Solet’s debut is wholly effective enough for moviegoers to turn the other cheek. Call it the Alex Rodriguez of horror films.

GRACE

Opened on Aug. 14 in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Paul Solet; director of photography, Zoran Popovic; edited by John Coniglio and Darrin Navarro; music by Austin Wintory; production designer, Martina Buckley; produced by Ingo Vollkammer, Kevin Dewalt, Cory Neal and Adam Green; released by Anchor Bay Films. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Jordan Ladd (Madeline Matheson), Samantha Ferris (Patricia Lang), Gabrielle Rose (Vivian Matheson), Serge Houde (Henry Matheson), Stephen Park (Michael Matheson) and Malcolm Stewart (Dr. Richard Sohn).

Comments

Humorless? "Not a laugh within earshot"? I thought it was at times wickedly funny. So did the audience I saw it with, or so it seemed.

I loved the satirical depiction of the vegan "Whole Foods Mom" who watches the most unsettling animal programs on TV.

The mother- and father-in-law were awesome. Their exchanges in the bedroom, building the crib, etc., were grimly hilarious, even as they were deeply tragic.

And come on - the last line of the movie, even if you didn't like the last shot (I did) - was one dark and effed up coda.

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