Horror movies do the most psychological damage when everyone’s a monster. Any idiot can cover their face with a mask and hack up preteens with the Home Depot Clearance Sale. It takes true artistry to work the blade under the skin and release the real creepy-crawlies. Writer-director Paul Solet, expanding on his original short film, pulls it off for about three-fourths of the disturbing Grace. It’s only in the final act he betrays his Fangoria roots, taking his darling creepshow and dropping it squaw on its noggin. Delicately the film treads the fine line between unsettling horror and macabre comedy, deftly blending chills with chuckles, but Solet either doesn’t have or doesn’t want the self-confidence to not cop out to a cheesy yuk twist ending. Which is not to say the ending wasn’t clever, so much as an unsatisfying trombone-“waahing” smirk at the audience.
Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd), a dirty vegan animal-rights loving hippie, is doing everything she can to give birth to a healthy baby. Everyone’s got advice for her from her overbearing mother-in-law Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), who frowns and shudders as her daughter-in-law consumes tempeh and soy milk, to her birthing coach/former mentor (Samantha Ferris). At eight months, the family is in a car accident, killing Madeline’s husband and presumably her unborn child, which she decides to carry to term anyway. She gives birth to what appears to be a stillborn corpse. But the baby begins to feed. It soon becomes evident that little Grace needs more than a macrobiotic diet to be healthy. She craves blood. And there’s no soy substitute for that.
Solet does a wonderful job scorning all conventions and taking them in clever directions. Clearly, he is mocking the whole vegan/animal rights angle by saddling the baby with a craving for flesh and blood. There’s plenty of sniffing and sighing over soy milk and tofu. And yet, he doesn’t entirely discount the whole naturalistic movement. When the meddlesome mother-in-law sends her arrogant family doctor to the hospital to bully his methods, it’s only through the insight and experience of the mentor midwife that the day is saved. She delivers a crushing bitchslap to the hospital docs and prep school prick that’s kind of refreshing to a guy whose future wife plans on giving birth in a big ol’ bathtub instead of under the fluorescents and epidurals of the medical Death Star. When Madeline does give birth, it’s frighteningly primal — a coven of buzzcutted, betanktopped women carrying her screaming into a giant vat of water, surrounded by candles and fertility statues. The midwife shrieks and dictates as blood gushes out and quickly fills the tub. It’s a horrifying experience, played up well because of the clever set-ups of Solet.
While Grace is supposedly the titular ghoul — an adorable baby smeared with blood and surrounded by flies — it’s really the other characters who prove to be just as unnerving. The midwife used to be Madeline’s lover and spends a few hours parked outside her house, watching from her car. Madeline has a slavish obsession to Grace, an obviously sick baby, cradling the child as it literally eats away at her. Madeline downs vitamins as she drains steaks to feed her child. Vivian goes brutally insane at the death of her son, scheming like an unhinged Goblin King to snatch that baby, make him free. She becomes obsessive herself, hungry to recapture her own motherly instincts in some extremely uncomfortable sexplay with her husband. She sends the family doctor to declare Madeline unfit so she can take possession of the child. Even the doctor is disturbing, with subtly creepy hints at a potential affinity for breastmilk. He hooks Madeline to a steampunk lactation pump, with brass works and giant tubes, practically licking his lips, not just to get a gander at her sweater puppies but also because he craves the moo juice. In an earlier scene, we see him drinking a finger of a viscous white liquid from a highball glass. Your first thought is, “That’s not scotch. What is that? Is that— Naaaah.”
In fact, the film really soars on watching the actors displaying a bevy of absolutely wretched and bile-rising behaviors. Jordan Ladd is spectacularly shudderworthy as Madeline, weepy and crooning over this twisted fiend that fell out of her. (I just flush ‘em down.) Gabrielle Rose might very well have taken the blue ribbon as Queen of Fucked Uppery. She becomes progressively more despicable and horrible in every scene. She keeps committing more and more monstrous acts, with this militant Republican housefrau nee school-marmish glee. She looks like she’ll rap you on the knuckles with a ruler, right before she bites your fucking finger off. By the end of the movie, you’re less concerned by the potentially zombie baby than by the fact she’s going to end up with one of these fucking weirdos.
Solet performs astoundingly, hinging his story on how a baby changes others rather than just the mediocre horror behind a bloodthirsty bairn. Which is why it’s so incredibly disappointing that he takes it down the cartoonish road for the finale. Truth be told, I really don’t know how he could have satisfyingly tied off this tourniquet on this trembling squirmfest. But while he was doing such an outstanding job assembling this psychologically unnerving flick, he takes it straight into bad slasher pic melodrama for the finale. The ultimate coda ends up being a groaner, not a gasper. Grace is definitely worth a watch, if only for the magnificent performances of the leading ladies. Solet has demonstrated he’s got talent, just not the guts to capitalize on it.