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birth_rebirth - Still 1.jpeg

'Birth/Rebirth' Brings New Life to Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'

By Sara Clements | Film | August 18, 2023 |

By Sara Clements | Film | August 18, 2023 |


birth_rebirth - Still 1.jpeg

Coming to Shudder later this year is Laura Moss’s Frankenstein-inspired Birth/Rebirth. The writer-director, along with Brendan J. O’Brien, crafts a story that takes the Mary Shelley horror classic in a new direction, eliminating the patriarchal dominance over the feminine. Posing elemental questions about life and humanity, this modern take on the classic work boats terrific performances and succeeds at showing a mother’s desperation to hold on to their child, no matter the cost.

A nurse and a coroner both have blood on their hands at the end of the day, but for different reasons. In the case of maternity nurse, Celie (Judy Reyes), the blood on her hands signifies new life. But for coroner Rose (Marin Ireland), it signifies death. The contrasting images of a newborn and a corpse carry with them what will link these two women together, going beyond just working in the same hospital. When Celie’s daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) dies suddenly, and her body disappears from the morgue, the mourning mother suspects Rose. Desperate to know what happened, she forces herself into Rose’s home only to discover that Lila has been reanimated. Rose had been working on a treatment for death since her mother died, and it seems that she has succeeded. There’s no guarantee Lila will be the same when she wakes up, nor that the connection between her and Celie will still be there. Keeping Lila alive won’t be easy, but Celie, living with the guilt of not being with her child when she died, decides to become the Igor to Rose’s Frankenstein to help make sure her baby gets to live again. It’s a miracle, she believes. But that may not be the case.

What really drives the film are its two leads. At the beginning of the film, they couldn’t be any more different. Celie is a warm, nurturing mother and has embraced that role. Rose, on the other hand, is pale, cold, strange, and driven by a scientific mind. She uses her natural processes as a way of experimentation, impregnating herself just to get the fetal tissue she needs to continue her fight against death. Over the course of the film, however, these two protagonists begin to shift their roles: Rose realizes the impact of her experiments, while Celie becomes reckless with determination to keep it going. It’s an interesting dynamic to explore especially since they essentially become moms to Lila. Their bickering is entertaining, like a couple who’s been married for years. They form a dangerous bond that poses dangerous consequences. The performance of Lister as Lila can’t be understated either. She’s fantastically creepy in reanimated form and is given the task of having to learn how to walk and talk from scratch, which she makes look easy.

There’s a desire as you watch Birth/Rebirth that is, unfortunately, never met: The film going full horror. As it essentially turns into a zombie flick, it could have gone completely off the rails with gore and violence. The film’s most terrifying element proves to be the lengths Celie will take in saving her child. While it’s not out to scare, it does excel in building an uneasy atmosphere. This is created especially with Ariel Marx’s score that’s an orchestra of voices, body sounds like a heartbeat, and medical machines like the heart monitor and sonogram. The score works to hammer home what is thematically being expressed about motherhood and playing God.

Rooted deeply underneath all of this, though, is an ode to Mary Shelley herself and her own struggles as a mother. Having suffered miscarriages and much personal grief, she spent the last years caring for her only child, a devotion shown by Celie towards Lila. Shelley brought to life an iconic figure in horror at a time when she felt disdain toward her own life-giving body. Moss takes inspiration from both the author’s life and fictional works to build the ultimate ode to one of horror’s most celebrated gothic novelists.