I walked inside from one of the most idiotically cold days of the Chicago winter to see a movie whose first shot is of Chicago draped in snow. This I took to be a poor omen for things to come, and lo! I was correct. The Unborn is a colossal failure, the worst film yet by director David S. Goyer, made all the harder to take by the very number of shots and moments that work awesomely well: just enough of them to throw the wilderness of crappiness surrounding them into sharpest relief, and demonstrate that in the hands of a great horror director, this film might have been one of the most memorable and scary films of 2009.

There's hardly a single complaint that I can make about the film that couldn't be easily laid against the films of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, or the J-horror masters, after all, and we all agree ("we all" who like horror in the first place) that those movies are all great. It's only the directors' visionary imagery that saves their generally incomprehensible scripts from the dustbin of cinematic history. Sadly for The Unborn, Goyer is not a visionary filmmaker; in fact, of all the cinéastes in America, he is one of the very worst, relative to the esteem in which his name is held. For some reason, because he co-wrote the screenplays to Dark City and Batman Begins and the scenario for The Dark Knight, his name is some kind of talisman; despite the absence of anything else remotely like a good movie in his résumé, which veers drunkenly from Demonic Toys to The Crow: City of Angels to Jumper, with directorial pit-stops for Blade: Trinity and The Invisible. The most terrifying thing about The Unborn is nothing onscreen; it's that Goyer has managed to top himself - or maybe that would be, bottom himself out - with the worst film he's ever directed (I haven't seen everything he's written, though I imagine that The Unborn is at least a smidgen better than Kickboxer 2).

The first scene of the unborn comes powerful close to working, and here is what happens: a young woman whose name, we will learn, is Casey (Odette Yustman, who you might remember from Cloverfield, or perhaps like me, you just can't get over how her name sounds like she ought to be a ballerina/spy), runs through a park in Chicago in the dead of winter (and as the quarter-inch-thick ice on the inside of my windows can attest, the dead of a Chicago winter is pretty fucking dead). She comes upon a blue glove in the middle of the path and stops; when she looks for its owner, she notices a little boy watching her, wearing one blue glove. He runs into the woods, and when Casey looks again, there is a dog wearing a mask staring at her with undoggishly blue eyes. Going into the woods, she spots the mask, apparently stuck in the dirt, and when she digs in the dirt, she finds a jar containing a human fetus, and it opens its eyes to look at her, and she wakes up.

Maybe describing it in words doesn't make it work as well as it did onscreen. Whatever, this opening flipped my shit: the shot of the dog in the mask looked, admittedly, quite stupid, but everything else was moody and creepy and wonderful; even the obvious button to the fetus in the jar shot (my exact thought process: "And... the fetus opens its eyes. Wait. And... the fetus opens its eyes. Wait. An- HOLY SHIT THE FETUS JUST OPENED ITS EYES THAT IS THE CREEPIEST THING EVER!"). The fact that it's virtually silent, not even any score, helps a lot, although not in a way that you'd notice at first; it's just that the dialogue and score are two of the worst things in the movie, so their absence can't help but make it better.

Anyway, Casey wakes up and the plot instantly kicks over into the most hopelessly routine ghost story conceivable, which basically consists of Casey's suicide mother and long-lost grandmother (Jane Alexander, who doesn't seem to realise that she's slumming) who tells her about the dybbuk - a disembodied spirit in Jewish folklore - that has haunted their families all these many years, and how if she does not stop it, it shall possess her body and kill everyone she loves, so time for a Jewish exorcism, which is apparently different from a Christian exorcism, but you'd never be able to tell from how it was filmed - the requisite papers blowing all around, people getting thrown against walls, and lights shorting out are all in attendance. Just about the only thing you haven't seen here before is Grandma Sofi's explanation for how the dybbuk first took hold in their family line: apparently, it's because of when her brother died in Auschwitz during Mengele's experiments, and came back, and she had to kill her brother's body, and so forth. Did you miss it? I'll go back: the film's plot hinges on Josef Mengele's twin experiments in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I didn't know that you could Godwin a shitty horror movie, but then, I am not David S. Goyer.

Issues of taste aside, the film's story is not so much plagued by plot holes as it is constructed out of them, not unlike an especially lacy variety of Swiss cheese. My favorite is that the grandmother makes a big deal about how Casey has to find this one particular rabbi (Gary Oldman, who doesn't seem to care that he's slumming) who is an expert on this book about stopping dybbuks, but when she meets him, he's never heard of the book, and doesn't know how to exorcise a dybbuk, not that he believes in them anyway (runner-up: on three occasions, that same rabbi tells her that the exorcism won't work if she doesn't truly believe that she is possessed, which obviously, being a young 21st century gal, she doesn't; despite the fact that he doesn't believe whereas she is absolutely 100% convinced before she ever even meets him).

This is where my whole "Goyer≠Argento" argument was leading: like the best Italian or Japanese horror, The Unborn absolutely collapses as a script, before the actors or anybody even got to take a look at it. Traditionally, that's turned into a benefit, something that just makes the film's world that much crazier and harder to comprehend - but it takes some real hardcore visual super-amazingness to make it work. Goyer is a visual hack, whose work all looks exactly like every other PG-13 horror film in history, and his only idea as a horror director is the hoary old jump scare. You know: the creepy little boy ghost is certainly going to jump out at the heroine from that corner as soon as she backs into it, so... there he is! If there were a director who didn't know how to put together a halfway effective jump scare, we should have to shoot him just on principle, and to prevent him from contaminating the gene pool. But that's not where I was going: Goyer's idea of "scary" is nothing short of barbarism, nothing like the poetically surreal horror images that usually serve to turn a script like this into a movie that's genuinely frightening.

Other than that, you've got nothing but Yustman as a cipher heroine, shuttled from one dark and scary room to another and making no impression upon us other than that she looks a bit like young Jennifer Connelly. No characters we care about, no striking visuals to linger in the mind, nothing to justify the film's existence in any way. The Ides of January are come.