Despite its generally warm critical reception from Internet-based horror aficionados — and a chilling set-up that delivers its gross-outs with a helping of wit — Grace is a frustratingly dry entry in that subcategory of the genre that deals with the bearing of children. The subject has been mined in movies like Rosemary’s Baby, It’s Alive, and The Brood, and it’s been deconstructed to the point of abstraction — think “body horror,” as in the first Alien film. Director Paul Solet tries to take the concept back to square one, adopting a sober approach to the slowly paced story of a baby who’s not quite right and the mother who loves her.
Jordan Ladd, quickly becoming the go-to woman for horror directors, plays Madeline, a pregnant woman whose unborn child dies after she’s involved in an automobile accident. The newly widowed mother nevertheless opts to carry the stillborn baby to term and have it delivered by a midwife at home. She seems barely surprised when, a few moments after delivery, the tiny little dead thing starts crying and suckling. Next stop, single motherhood. But the little bundle is a real handful. She smells of poo, even when her diaper is clean. She attracts flies. And she’s not satisfied with mother’s milk. So far, so good — Grace establishes a dilemma that’s disturbing and creepy and even blackly humorous, then takes the idea more or less nowhere, grimacing its way through 85 long, low-key minutes just to marvel again and again that, gosh, mommies really love their babies.
(It doesn’t help that the New York press screening was sourced from a DVD, which rendered Zoran Popovic’s 35mm cinematography ugly and indistinct and probably robbed the show of some depth and immediacy.)
Some writers have singled Grace out for praise for its handling of female characters, to which assertion I can only rub my eyes and say, “Really?” Solet may well be a feminist, and the women on screen are not mainstream female stereotypes. But stereotypes they are, written in aggressively reductive fashion. There’s a lesbian midwife and her lover. There’s Madeline herself, an ex-lesbian and also a vegan who seems often to be watching gory animal footage on TV. There’s Vivian, Madeline’s intrusive mother-in-law, who is, on the evidence, neither vegan nor lesbian but does have a serious maternity complex — in spite of her advanced age, she keeps her nipples supple and her breasts lactation-ready.
Grace is a movie that’s full of women, it’s true, and every woman we see turns out to be a little bit of a maniac. If Solet means to argue that there’s no joy in the life Madeline chooses for herself, supplicating her needs and desires to those of the child that’s suddenly taking precedence in her world, that’s one thing. But why vegans? Why lesbians? Not one of the women here has a clear-headed view of the situation, and that undermines the film’s status as a women’s studies text. The unavoidable, perhaps unintentional, suggestion is that women are emotion-driven creatures who, absent the influence of strong men (or, I suppose, good meat) in their lives, engage in irrational, self-destructive behavior. I won’t spoil the film completely by describing its revolting final image, but the message is pretty clear: these ladies are crazy.