Birth/Rebirth is a loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story that has been adapted so many times, going all the way back to the 10-minute silent version from 1910, produced by Thomas Edison’s company. It’s a story we all know, a timeless tale about a mad scientist trying to control nature, specifically the process of life and death, only to be undone by his own creation. Other than the very underrated May and A Nightmare Wakes, however, there hasn’t been a Frankenstein retelling that is quite female-centric, that is, until Birth/Rebirth.
Director Laura Moss’ film is the latest take on the familiar story, one that places women front and center. While Shelley’s novel certainly underscores the theme of birth, Moss’ film makes it even more paramount, after a mom, Celie (Judy Reyes), loses her only child, Lila (A.J. Lister), to a bacterial infection. A maternity nurse, Celie drops her child off with a friend while she works. After her phone dies, she misses all of the texts and voicemails, stating that Lila isn’t well. There are some parallels here between Celie’s plight and the author’s life, since Shelley lost three children, and her mother, author/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her.
Eventually, Celie meets the very socially awkward Rose (Marin Ireland), who, like Victor Frankenstein, is obsessed with death, specifically trying to cure death. A pathologist, Rose takes home dead bodies to experiment on them, including Lila’s. This puts the women on a crash course, but desperate to have her child alive and well again, Celie goes along with the crazy plan.
There’s so much to like about this film, specifically Reyes’ performance as a grief-stricken, yet determined mother. Yet, it’s Ireland who steals most of the show. While her character is morbidly funny, she’s also an interesting take on the mad scientist trope. Further, the film’s editing makes it so the women’s lives run parallel to each other, until they eventually meet. This is reinforced especially in the first act by the way the narrative and cuts are handled. It’s sharp and keen editing. By the middle of the film, they become like a married couple, to the point Celie cooks for Rose and lets her know when she’ll be home from work. In fact, this relationship and perhaps some of the queer undertones could have been played up more.
That said, the film handles it themes well overall, placing motherhood at the forefront, not only through Celie’s heartbreak, but also several hospital scenes that showcase the birthing process and the attention we sometimes give to children compared to mothers and the immense pains of childbirth. There’s one sequence where doctors rush to save a young mother’s child and assure her the baby will be fine. The mom asks, “What about me?” It’s a brief, but powerful moment that also illustrates a lot of what Moss is playing with here.
In terms of the horror, Birth/Rebirth doesn’t have a high body count. In Shelley’s novel, the Monster murders six people, three directly and three indirectly. The deaths here are far less, but Moss is careful and restrained, creating a character-driven feature that isn’t without a few good scares.
Overall, Birth/Rebirth is one of the most unique takes we’ve had on Frankenstein in years. It veers from Shelley’s novel and the various retellings, while still working with key themes, specifically the birthing process and trying to overcome death. Here, the mad scientist isn’t a young man obsessed with immortality and his name lasting through the ages. Instead, we have a grieving mother and successful female doctor who combine forces to reanimate a child. Moss created an assured feature that’s an engaging twist on a classic tale.
Birth/Rebirth hits theaters on Friday, August 18, before arriving on Shudder later this year.