A grieving mother and a creepy pathologist attempt to reawaken the dead in director Laura Moss’s debut horror feature Birth/Rebirth.
Celie (Judy Reyes), a well-liked nurse in the delivery unit of a Bronx hospital, raises a six-year-old daughter Lila (AJ Lister) alone. Her opposite, Dr Rose Casper (Marin Ireland), an emotionally detached pathologist who works in the underground morgue of the same hospital, performs autopsies with unrivalled enthusiasm on the recently departed. When Lila suddenly dies, and lands on Rose’s operating table, Rose cannot pass up the opportunity to begin a well-gestated experiment that will reawaken the deceased child. Celie swiftly discovers Rose’s plan and, in an act of desperation, aids in the effort to bring back Lila. The catch: she will require a constant supply of embryonic cells to survive.
Moss, with co-writer Brendan J O’Brien, delivers a horror that is seemingly uninterested in the well-trodden tropes of the genre. There are few real shocks in sight, and any “body horror” is delivered in a lighter dosage. Moss instead reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a world where the horror does not lie with the raising of a “monster” but instead with the everyday burdens of motherhood and bodily autonomy. Rose – sustaining Lila with embryonic cells harvested from her own fetal tissue – sacrifices her body in an effort to rebirth the deceased girl. “What about me?” later asks a pregnant mother laid out on a steel operating table having been forced into a medically-induced labour and undergoing an emergency c-section, when reassured of the survival of her unborn child. It is a chilling moment that sees a mother’s agency so quickly stripped from her and raises a moral dilemma that is all too real.
There are occasional missteps, however. The reveal of Roses’s true intentions ran slightly tepid, and there could have been a deeper exploration of the internal struggle of the core character’s moral crises as they plunge further together into depravity.
Reyes excellently portrays the slow burn of emotional anguish as the grieving Celie, and elsewhere Ireland is reliably sinister as the calculating Doctor. The pair complement each other well and, as the characters begin to resemble an unconventional family unit, their performances provide much-needed levity in their comically ordinary day-to-day interactions: from debates over who does the “washing up”, to Ireland’s deliciously deadpan line-delivery over frustrations of what the reborn child watches on the television.
Moss’s feminist rewrite of Shelley’s classic novel brings Frankenstein into the modern age, as the gloriously twisted Birth/Rebirth heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in horror cinema.
Birth/Rebirth does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Birth/Rebirth here: