Sex and violence are staples of American pop culture. When the two are combined in the form of abortion, however, the nation’s storytellers seem to develop a bit of stage fright. They either dance around the subject with the daintiness of a virgin spinster or tell the same two morality plays over and over. It’s either a tale of the misery faced by women who want abortions but can’t get them or the regret and discomfort caused when old abortions come to light. But for a subject that has roiled American politics for over half a century, there has been precious little entertainment which grappled with either the reality of or metaphysical questions posed by abortion.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will consider two movies that approach the issue from each side. One is a foreign flick that mines its existential ugliness for some low-key horror thrills and the other is a crowd funded U.S. production that seems almost afraid of its unvarnished truth. It’s “The Unborn Child” (2011) vs. “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” (2019) in a contest to see if horrible truths make the best horror movies.
Did her mother cut her hair with a broken bowl?
“The Unborn Child” is a film out of Thailand that claims to be based on a true story of a woman who claimed the ghost of her aborted baby was haunting her. So…”true” might be pushing a little. It follows the vaguely interconnected stories of a teenage couple who just got pregnant, a middle class professional couple with a young daughter, a hard-bitten abortionist and her baby-corpse disposing partner, and an actress facing a slumping career and an unwanted pregnancy. It’s one of those Asian ghost flicks where 90% of the action revolves around the characters reacting to scary sounds and something standing behind them that only the audience can see.
Presenting us with a Thailand where abortion is heavily restricted and even more heavily stigmatized, there are elements of “The Unborn Child” that will be strikingly pro-choice to American eyes. It is brutally honest about the awful dilemma facing young women who get pregnant before they are ready and the even more awful lengths they will go to free themselves from that maternal burden. The black market abortion practices displayed in this movie are more horrifying in their implication than a thousand gallons of fake blood and viscera. No one of good conscience would ever want a woman to have to go through that.
I think I know where the guys who did the CGI for "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" wound up.
Yet “The Unborn Child” also endorses in no uncertain terms that abortion is as much an anathema to traditional Buddhist morality as it is to traditional Christian teaching, showing it as the taking of innocent life and justifying the supernatural revenge of its victims. The abortionist and her undertaker partner are clearly defined as evil but neither is portrayed as inhuman, particularly when we see their rationalizations and excuses shatter when they are confronted with the magnitude of what they have done.
What is more interesting about “The Unborn Child” is how it demonstrates the power of cultural imperialism. It shows us four different levels of Thai society. There’s the high school kids who have no money or resources of their own. There’s the working class nature of the abortionist and the undertaker. There’s the middle class success of married professionals. And then there’s the actress living the lifestyle of the still rich and famous. What’s fascinating is that the higher you move up the socio-economic ladder, the more Americanized the characters become. The poorer characters look and talk and dress like they’re from a foreign land, but the richer characters would fit in fine in San Francisco or Des Moines. Though they’re the same nationality, they might as well be from different worlds.
"What kind of a gumball machine did THIS come out of?"
For its part, “Gosnell” may be one of the most disturbing non-horror flicks ever made. It’s a story that touches one electrifying issues after another, from race and sex to exploitation and willful blindness to atrocities, yet the producers had to LITERALLY go begging for money to make it. Hollywood just made a second big screen version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the umpteenth version of Robin Hood, a remake of “Papillon,” and a film about the 1970s tennis rivalry of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. But a black doctor in inner city Philadelphia who was accused of not only killing an adult patient through medical incompetence but of murdering possibly thousands of babies after they were born alive? NO ONE in show business thought that would be a movie worth making?
Based far more faithfully on the actually true story of Kermit Gosnell, this motion picture is surprisingly restrained given its subject matter. I mean, a medical zealot killing scores of innocent children over decades while letting his medical office and home turn into something out of the TV show “Hoarders?” It’s like if “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” actually happened. But this movie goes out of its way to avoid visual excesses or gross emotional manipulations. Partly, I’m sure that’s because they didn’t have the budget for anything too fancy. But I believe the tone of this film is mostly a deliberate decision to approach it more as an historical document than sensationalized propaganda. It is entirely accurate to say the investigation, arrest, and trial of Kermit Gosnell is something that mainstream American media and American popular culture wanted very much to ignore. Just go see the difference in results from your favorite search engine between “Kermit Gosnell” and “George Tiller.” The people behind this motion picture wanted to be sure this story wouldn’t be flushed down the memory hole.
And somewhere, Bill Cosby breathes a sign of relief that he's no longer the kindly old black guy with the worst secret life.
But I also suspect the makers of “Gosnell” were a little afraid of pushing things too far. This is perhaps the biggest, wettest, and reddest bloody shirt the pro-life movement could ever wave and I think the filmmakers avoided being as explicit as they could, even when presenting the pure and unadulterated truth, because they feared the backlash. Not just having a film business and media go from refusing to distribute, promote, or talk about “Gosnell” to actively trying to destroy the careers of everyone involved with it. I would guess they were also concerned a movie that makes “The Passion of the Christ” look like romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks would not appeal to the folks most interested in the film’s inescapable message.
Nick Searcy's look when someone suggested his next film be about the founder of the North America Man/Boy Love Assocation.
“The Unborn Child” takes a long time to get to its big ending, which is then slightly spoiled by CGI effects which look like they were cooked up on somebody’s old Commodore 64. That makes it easy to give this Throwdown to “Gosnell,” which is quite nicely done by everyone involved. But I think they both go a long way toward showing why abortion isn’t such fertile ground for horror flicks and why TV and cinema keep recycling the same safe and predictable abortion plots over and over again. I mean, it’s not like there are a bunch of horror movies about the Holocaust…are there?
The unwritten rule for all cop partners...always color coordinate!
The Unborn Child (2011)
Written by Poj Arnon and Thanadon Nuansutthi.
Starring Somchai Kemgland, Pitchanart Sakakorn, Chinaradi Anupongphichart, Chudapha Chanthakhet, Peerawit Boonark, Arisara Thongborisut, and Gathinda Chaang.
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (2018)
Written by Andrew Klavan, Ann McElhinney, and Phelim McAleer.
Directed by Nick Searcy.
Starring Dean Cain, Sarah Jane Morris, Nick Searcy, Michael Beach, Cyrina Fiallo, Earl Billings, Janine Turner, Paula Jay Fairbrother, and Alfonzo Rachel