Reimagining Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein is hardly a fresh idea. The classic horror novel has inspired many modernized tales of attempting to create life out of what once was dead. Rarely, though, does an update of Mary Shelley’s opus come across with as much style and punch as the directorial debut of Laura Moss, birth/rebirth. A standout from the Sundance 2023 Midnight section, birth/rebirth admirably builds a new kind of monster out of Frankenstein, Pet Sematary, and its own sick ideas.
birth/rebirth follows Celie (Judy Reyes of Scrubs fame), a hard-working maternity nurse who’s trying her best to balance work and her rambunctious six-year-old Lila (A.J. Lister). When Lila begins to feel sick, Celie thinks nothing of it, until this abrupt case of bacterial meningitis unexpectedly takes her life. Plagued with guilt and grief, Celie’s world further crumbles when she’s told the city has lost her daughter’s body in transit from the morgue. Celie tracks down the pathologist who examined Lila’s corpse to a Bronx apartment and discovers that Dr. Rose Caspar (Marin Ireland) not only has her daughter – she’s managed to bring her back to life via radical unheard-of methods. Rather than turn in the would-be Dr. Frankenstein, Celie chooses to indulge in this fantasy. As she and Rose enter a bizarre co-parenting situation, Celie realizes that resurrecting a human being might not be a walk in the park.
It’s difficult to label what kind of movie birth/rebirth is. Despite its acquisition from Sundance by horror-centric streamer Shudder, it juggles a variety of genres. Science fiction, pitch-black comedy, and motherhood drama all get their day in the sun. This strange mix of genres and their accompanying tones never feels misguided due to the clear vision of Laura Moss’ script and direction that creates a wonderful synergy with the performances of Reyes, Lister, and Ireland. As shot by cinematographer Channanun Chotrungroj, Celia’s world takes on a slice-of-life vibe prior to the fatal incident. Seeing her go about her day is pleasant, and the characterization of both her and her relationship with her daughter is sweet.
Parallel to that, the exploits of Dr. Caspar take on the grungy edge of an early-period David Fincher film. Whether the amateur mad scientist is conducting her deranged experiments or nonchalantly going about her day job, Marin Ireland is a deadpan delight as Rose, injecting birth/rebirth with an offbeat sense of humor as everything appears to come second to her work, official or extracurricular. Ireland also stole this year’s Sundance with her disturbed performance in Eileen, but little touches like Dr. Caspar’s relationship with her reanimated pig inspire laughter in disbelief every time here. Ireland and Reyes bounce off each other quite well, the empathetic Celie not knowing what to make of Rose’s freakish behavior. The actresses brilliantly give themselves to the screenplay, where the two settle into a strange companionship filled with caring and scientific curiosity. birth/rebirth is damn near a beautiful story of two women finding each other.
That is until you get to the horror of it all. First, there’s Lila. For such a young actress, A.J. Lister succeeds in conveying the mixed feelings an ungodly creation like Lila brings. She’s deeply uncanny, her mumbling suggesting a monster with glimmers of the human she once was sporadically bubbling to the surface. In that regard, she’s the perfect parallel to Frankenstein’s monster, a product of crude science that has its own brand of life. That crude science forms one of the strongest conceits of birth/rebirth. It’s never quite clear whether Rose’s methods are barbaric or revelatory; she harvests her own fetuses by inducing miscarriages and unceremoniously collects various forms of pre-natal material, including sperm, to create a sort of serum. It’s queasy but utterly fascinating. With the growing prominence of stem cell research, it’s an ingenious update to simply stitching a corpse together and electrocuting it.
Nonetheless, what birth/rebirth makes crystal clear is that these are finite resources. Celia and Rose give so much of themselves that they eventually must steep to much more unethical means to keep sustaining their created life and ongoing obsession. Their misdeeds start to adversely affect the people around them, such as characters played by Breeda Wool and Monique Gabriela Curnen. This motherly desperation of keeping a child alive illuminates a theme that Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien have on their mind. Likewise, there’s a strong parallel between what Celia and Rose must do for Lila and the same kind of reality pregnant women, and, hell, women in general are subjected to. The hardest-to-watch parts of birth/rebirth might just be routine, standard procedures for women today. This is the mark of great horror – using the genre to bring attention to what a general, especially male, audience might not consider.
Only because it crams so much into its 98-minute runtime does birth/rebirth drag ever so slightly. Really, though, that’s hardly an issue. As the film rockets towards an exceedingly clever conclusion, there’s no doubt that even more time with the very non-nuclear family unit of Rose, Celia, and Lila would’ve been just as enthralling. birth/rebirth repurposes old parts to create new life, just like its central “couple.” Shudder’s got another fantastic head-turner on the way destined for its own genuine longevity within the horror community, as this is a film that spooks and tickles as much as it does burrow in one’s brain.