SXSW Film Review: Grace

The horror genre is a mixed bag. You have your intentionally humorous horror (Evil Dead II), your unintentionally humorous horror (Leeches) and your unintentionally, irredeemably horrible horror (Cabin Fever). But there’s a smaller sub-genre which is, in my opinion, superior: The Dramatic Horror film. Included in this sub-genre are films like Rosemary’s Baby, 28 Weeks Later, Repulsion, King of the Ants, and the Devil’s Rejects. These are films which, while sometimes containing supernatural elements, are rooted very strongly in reality. They are devoid of cliches and often feel completely plausible. And that is why they are so damned scary.

Grace falls into the latter category. Unfortunately for the film (and the unsuspecting audience), most people won’t know that going in. This is not a campy horror film. There are no cheesy one-liners (Save one at the end…Which I’m convinced a producer insisted on including). This is a seriously, utterly horrifying film. And I absolutely loved it.

It tells the story of a woman named Madeline who, after losing both her unborn baby and her husband in a car accident, decides to carry her dead fetus to full term. Miraculously, her stillborn child comes back to life. But Madeline soon learns that breast milk will not sustain her special child. She needs blood…human blood. A zombie baby! Sounds hilarious, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not.

The antagonist of this film is Madeline’s mother-in-law, Vivian. She is a closed-minded control freak who blames Madeline for the death of her son and is determined to take Grace away. When we meet Vivian at the beginning of the film, she is picking at the vegan dinner which Madeline has made and asking if tofu can provide enough nutrition for a gestating baby. Everything she says to her daughter-in-law is condescending and/or insulting. Madeline gracefully ignores her. She knows what her baby needs. She doesn’t trust doctors, opting for natural home-birth. Her husband complies with his wife’s decisions but never defends Madeline to his mother either. So it’s no wonder that Madeline feels she needs to carry Grace to term. She needs to meet the only person who would love her unconditionally. Even if that person is dead.

I became intimately aware of the horrors of miscarriage after watching Lynn Shelton’s revelatory documentary The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies. She tells the very personal and detailed stories of the miscarriages of several women including her own. It’s profoundly devastating. And it’s not exactly over quickly. After the child dies in utero, the mother still must give birth. The first time they meet their child, it is dead. This is a real-life horror. And it happens more often than you think.

Grace is filmed from that perspective. The most intense scene comes when Madeline gives birth with the aid of her midwife and doula. The pain of childbirth is usually countered with purpose. At the end of the pain will come the joy of a new life. But not this time. No one in that birthing pool expects the pain to end. The professionals can’t offer any words of encouragement. Tears stream down everyone’s faces.

The midwife pulls the blue baby out of the bloody water and hesitates when Madeline asks to hold her. But she complies and leaves the mother to say goodbye to her child. However, there is no goodbye. Madeline nurses her newborn and the blue cheeks turn to pink. Grace is alive. Everything is fine.

But everything is not fine. The baby is sick. Though she is hungry, she can’t keep breast milk down. Madeline soon learns what the baby really needs. There are no cheesy zombie prosthetics on little Grace. She is a normal, pink baby. Who needs to drink blood. And though Madeline is a vegan, she is willing to comply.

As Madeline struggles to keep her baby healthy, Vivian plots to have Grace taken away so that she can raise her. At the post film Q&A, an audience member asked about the “clear anti-vegetarian message” of the film. The director corrected him. He said he had no political message. He was just showing different perspectives. I wonder how someone can interpret the film as anti-vegetarian when we see the nefarious lengths that Vivian, a staunch meat-and-potatoes proponent, will go to in order to steal her grandchild. If there is a message it’s that every child is different. There’s no one correct parenting ideology. If the mother listens to her baby, she will learn what the baby needs and it will thrive.

But mostly, Grace parallels one of the greatest horror films of all time, Rosemary’s Baby. At its core, it’s about how a mother will do anything to preserve the life of her child, even if she suspects what she is doing is wrong. Even at the cost of her own well-being. Like parenthood, Grace is all at once frightening and beautiful. And it’s not for the faint of heart.

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