Friday, February 19, 2016

Pray for Zika’s Babies

Just when you thought it was safe to get pregnant, along comes the Zika virus. As everyone has read by now, it’s the newest, scariest plague on the planet. The medical research is still not complete, but there’s the possibility that when the disease affects pregnant women, they’ll give birth to babies with microcephaly: abnormally small heads and brains. In some parts of Latin America, where the outbreak is still unchecked, women are being warned not to get pregnant. (In countries where birth control, not to mention abortion, is strongly discouraged, this is doubtless posing interesting social challenges. I just heard that Pope Francis himself accepts contraception under these circumstances.)

But my job is to write about movies, not disease-of-the-week scenarios. So when I hear about the disturbing possibilities posed by Zika, I think back to films that remind us that carrying an unborn baby for nine months can be hazardous to one’s health. The obvious example, of course, is Rosemary’s Baby, which scared the daylights out of most of us back in 1968. I always thought that Ira Levin, the writer of the 1967 novel that engendered Roman Polanski’s film version, had hit upon a brilliant premise. The idea of a problem pregnancy is something that most women can understand on a visceral level. Even the most benign nine-month gestation period has its moments in which the mom-to-be wonders if, in fact, she’s bearing Satan’s spawn.  

(There’s a grim irony, of course, in what happened a year later to Polanski’s own unborn baby.  He died—about two weeks before his impending birth—along with his mother Sharon Tate, at the hands of Charles Manson’s ominous crew. Not all danger comes from within.)

A 1979 horror film by the very twisted David Cronenberg also makes a comment about pregnancy. I’m thinking of The Brood, a film whose climax is as eerie and disturbing as any I can recall. I’d rather not go into detail, for fear of spoiling the climactic plot twist, but suffice it to say that The Brood dramatically portrays the physically and psychically intimate connection between a mother and her progeny.

Which leads me to a Concorde-New Horizons film to which I contributed, in my position as Roger Corman’s story editor. The Unborn (1991) takes its genuine power from the anxiety that a women can naturally feel when her body has been invaded by a mysteriously evolving creature. Interestingly enough, it was written by two young men , John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who (to fool the union watchdogs at the Writers’ Guild) used as a pseudonym a combination of their middle names, Henry Dominic. These guys were Harvard Lampoon buddies of my Concorde colleague, Rodman Flender, who had finally gotten the opportunity to direct his first feature. It’s the tale of a young married woman  (Brooke Adams) who—unable to get pregnant—resorts to experimental in vitro fertilization at the hands of the inevitable mad scientist (the creepy and wonderful James Karen). The pregnancy is painful and difficult, and the birth . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Trivia about The Unborn: for this film my friend Rodman cast (Friends’ ) Lisa Kudrow in one of her very first professional roles. And when Roger Corman hired Brooke Adams to write and direct as well as star in a sequel, we struggled with the impossibility of putting this particular child on screen. Eventually, there would be The Unborn II, though it’s only remotely connected to the first film. Leave it to Roger to find a way to save the franchise.

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