Still/Born begins with both a birth and a still birth, as young mother Mary (Christie Burke) delivers Adam, only to realise in horror that his identical twin Thomas is dead on arrival. Yet the mannered forward-slash punctuation that splits the film’s title (like in Marat/Sade, Face/Off and Frost/Nixon) also betokens other doubles and divisions within the film to come. For as Mary settles into a new home with husband Jack (Jesse Moss) and baby Adam, she meets her neighbour Rachel (Rebecca Olson), who also has a husband and newborn – and who is a bit of a swinger. The stage is set for some unhealthy exchange and transference, with Mary’s fragile sense of loss and post-partum depression upping the psychological stakes, even as she keeps staring at her reflected other in mirrors. So when Mary starts hearing and seeing a diabolical presence in the house that is trying to snatch away little Adam, viewers, confined to Mary’s increasingly frantic perspective, find that they, like she, have – as her doctor, played by genre stalwart Michael Ironside, puts it – “lost the ability to discern what is real and what is not real”.
That slippery boundary between reality and delusion permeates Brandon Christensen’s confident debut, bringing a deep-seated ambiguity that leaves us in the shadows, groping about for a resolution. Co-writing with Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, It Stains The Sand Red), Christensen simultaneously offers a sensitive insider’s view of the anxieties and pathologies that can come with motherhood, and the horror of a vulnerable woman’s struggle with a malevolent baby-eating she-devil – which, in turn, is either the Mesopotamian demigoddess Lamashtu, or Mary’s own personal demon. Any way you read it, the tension is palpable – and if we are not sure whether to believe what we see, baby monitors, home cams and other recording devices may be no more reliable in furnishing objective truths.
Accordingly this story of maternity and madness carefully positions itself as a postnatal Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with side references to Sinister (2012) and even (as Mary manically hacks her way through a bathroom door) The Shining (1980). Mary’s fears of alien intrusion (whether by monster, or by the man eater next door) may – and I stress may – be misplaced, but either way, her fate is by turns terrifying/tragic.