Unless you're in a major metropolitan area like New York or Los Angeles, or frequented any of a number of film festivals in 2009, you probably missed Grace. Distributed by the modest theatrical arm of home-video heavyweight Anchor Bay, the film was a sleeper hit in the making: little seen, provocatively-conceived and elegantly executed on a shoestring budget, Paul Solet's feature writing and directing debut gets under your skin and evokes a feeling of unease that rivals the original Saw.
And yet, rather than indulging in horror's more recent penchant for plentiful gore, it focuses on characters rather than the color red, which is why it manages to surpass many of its more prominent cinematic competitors and qualify as one of the few true must-see horror movies of 2009.
The film stars Jordan Ladd (Death Proof) as Madeline, a mother-to-be who loses her baby and her husband in a car accident eight months into her pregnancy. Opting to carry the baby to term, it arrives two weeks later stillborn; but with the tragedy of two lost pregnancies hanging over her head, she literally wills the child back to life. After retreating home to raise baby Grace, the child begins to exhibit some increasingly strange behavior—first attracting flies to her crib, and later, developing an unhealthy appetite for human blood. But when her husband's nosy mother-in-law decides that she wants the baby to raise for herself, Madeline is forced to make a difficult decision in order to protect her motherhood, even if it comes at the expense of her humanity.
Several of our colleagues gushed over this movie (no pun intended) after its screening at Sundance in January and later during its brief theatrical run, which is why we hunted down its star and director last month for a few insights about what they think seems to work best about its creepy premise. But having finally seen the film, we can attest not only that the hype is well-deserved, but the extreme discomfort its idea evokes—that of a mother who resuscitates and nurses her undead child with more than just milk—is even more intense and unsettling when you actually watch the movie.
Personally, I already have a cinematic phobia of pregnant women; even in comedies, or the most harmless scenarios, I'm always afraid something bad will happen either to them or their babies. Writer-director Solet does a terrific job exploiting that feeling by subjecting Madeline to some early discomfort, giving his audience a sense of relief, and then subjecting her to even worse situations. Suffice it to say it's classic, suspenseful misdirection, but he does it masterfully, so you can appreciate his technique even when you're aware of it. Further, he doesn't spend more than the first third of the film dealing with Madeline's pregnancy, understanding that an idea is good only as long as it remains effective, and then builds different story developments on top of it to create even more unnerving moments once she's had the baby.
Thematically the film really comes together in a way that's much smarter and strongly visible than the majority of the horror movies released recently; while I question why a vegan mother would regularly watch TV shows about animal slaughter, the notion of feeding becomes a recurrent theme both in the background and at the forefront of the narrative. Further, Solet aims visually for something creepy but believable, rather than transparently moody, and in so doing humanizes Madeline's domestic desperation even when things get bloodily out of control; using sparing CGI and split-focus cinematography, he connects the mother's singular focus on her child with our own view of the action, allowing for an admittedly weighted but overall effective portrait of a slightly-deranged but dedicated mommy doing everything she can to protect her child from forces that conspire to take her away.
At the same time, the film isn't without its faults, although most of those are subjective; if you wanted to nitpick, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense why an obsessive mother like Madeline would keep her baby in a separate room, for example, and it will certainly be up to individual viewers how much they'll accept the fact that Madeline's mother-in-law wants the baby badly enough to take her by force. Thankfully the DVD and Blu-ray features a commentary track and several featurettes that examine its emotional and logical development, if not to quell objections then certainly to explore them a little more fully. But suffice it to say Grace itself comes up with enough compelling scenarios that dramatically and thematically connect to its core concept that on the big or the small screen, the overall effect is hugely, admirably, and especially uncomfortably successful.