Psychedelic sci-fi body horror that messes with your head in ways you never thought your brain could be manipulated should be a box-office smash, right?
Well, not so much, which is a shame, because director Danny Perez's Antibirth, an insane vision of an alternate reality, didn't do much business at the box office after premiering at Sundance. Perez already ventured into a danger zone with audiences when he crushed the usual female archetypes that hide the gruesomeness of pregnancy under glowing faces and manufactured euphoria. Then he added aliens. Inspired by conspiracy theories and some of the strangest UFO videos you could ever find on YouTube without plunging into the dark web, Perez's film is a glorious neon nightmare decked out in Christmas lights.
Unfortunately, Antibirth had only a limited release after it lit up the After Dark Film Festival in Toronto, shown in select theaters and available through VOD for an uneventful stretch. With movies this small, reviews make a big difference, and while some critics praised Perez's far-out vision, most didn't get the plot or the point. At least Bloody-Disgusting gave it a positive review.
Hard-partying trailer park junkie Lou (Natasha Lyonne) denies she is pregnant after a drug-fueled bash where everyone was so detached from reality, they couldn't have told her she took something suspicious. Hallucinations within hallucinations and suspicious whispers behind Lou's back start to reveal that it might not have had its origins in an underground lab. Things get even more unreal after she drags herself to her hotel cleaning job and encounters eccentric hippie Lorna (Meg Tilly), who claims to be some sort of clairvoyant, though her explanations for things make no sense (at least not at first).
Lou soon experiences symptoms that have nothing to do with human pregnancy. Think teeth falling out into the sink, and skin peeling off like a fading third-degree sunburn. That she's watching New Age spiritual programs on TV doesn't help, as they melt into her constant state of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. Also not helpful: visions of the furry rainbow mascots from sketchy local kids' playplace Funzone giving her a brutal pelvic exam. If you don't think those things are seriously deranged, there's something wrong with you. Never trust something covered in rainbow fur that has a face like a warped porcelain doll.
Things eerily start to make sense after Lorna unearths fragments of her own past that sound too much like what is happening to Lou. The more Lorna reveals, the more Lou realizes the ghastly truth as her symptoms spiral out of control.
Unlike many body horror films, which just get down to the disembodied limbs, the flawed, undeniably human characters of Antibirth are believable and even relatable if you get rid of all the syringes. Perez wrote Lou's character imagining Natasha Lyonne as the junkiest of devil-may-care junkies. She is unapologetically careless to the point that you just want to reach through the screen, grab her by the arm and drag her into rehab. Even when she gets flashes of concern that her body could be invaded by a parasite, she quickly fades out.
Chloe Sevigny's Sadie is the ignorant best friend who shows genuine concern despite having no clue what is going on, even when it exposes itself in her face. She insists Lou is pregnant instead of what Lou herself dreads she is—infected.
The underlying plot of this film diverges from the swarm of body horror flicks that unleash the beast from the beginning and chew through two hours of splattered guts. Perez wanted to inject more narrative into Antibirth than previous work such as Oddsac and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which were almost purely visual extravaganzas. You would understand nothing if you were half as intoxicated as most of the characters, because you have to keep an eyeball out for suspicious details buried in the dialogue and glimpses of the supernatural.
While some critics bashed Antibirth for being too tangled, the plot twists and warps into something so weird that it just sucks you in beyond your control. If you stay hyper-conscious from that intoxicated opening scene, you'll be aware that Lou doesn't just crash and pass out after that party. When she laughs that she could give the fetus some superpowers if she really is pregnant, you could easily space out on that one moment when her swollen abdomen brushes against the microwave and releases a burst of electricity. Miss that and you'll think that the explosion of smoke minutes later is just the death of an old microwave. Bonus: Watch the parking lot really carefully for what could be the most disturbing Titanic reference ever.
The thing is, there actually is a point to all the gore and apparently random unnatural occurrences. Antibirth is more than just smoke and special effects. Tentacles of the nightmarish truth keep emerging as this beautiful monstrosity evolves. Everything in this theater of the grotesque, from Funzone's rainbow beasts to celestial voices that may or may not be a dream, coalesces in a finale you won't believe unless you are aware of everything that leads you down the rabbit hole.
You can now stream Antibirth on Netflix. Just don't eat anything within three hours of that point of no return when you click the watch button.