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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bundles of Joy (originally published 9/99)

Down through the centuries, the miracle of childbirth has been the object of awe and wonder. Our reverence for the primacy of this ultimate creative act has led us to enshrine motherhood as a virtue among virtues. Knowing this to be the case, storytellers have also long understood that one sure way to elicit a visceral reaction from their audiences is to fashion a tale in which motherhood is defiled in some way.

That's the narrative strategy behind the premise of the currently playing film, "The Astronaut's Wife," in which the title character becomes impregnated with something that may not be human. If we consider that a growing fetus is a kind of benign parasite, drawing its sustenance from the body of the mother, few things can be more horrifying than the notion of a fetus that is not benign, perhaps not even human. It's a premise that has been used by filmmakers many times before. Here are a few examples, each of which is available on home video.

"Night of the Blood Beast" (1958). I should point out right at the outset that this film is by no means a work of classic cinema. It was made on a shoestring, and it shows. Still, it has a captivating premise and a pretty good script (despite the cheesy title) that may well have provided inspiration to later filmmakers. Judge for yourself: we have here a story in which a rocket crash lands after returning from space. The astronaut inside appears to be dead, and yet minimal vital signs remain. Eventually he wakes up, but it is discovered that nine alien embryos have been implanted in his chest. The parallels with both "Alien" (1979) and "The Astronaut's Wife" seem clear enough.

"Village of the Damned" (1960). In the small English town of Midwich, all the citizens mysteriously fall into a deep and extended sleep. After they waken, it is discovered that all the women of the town are pregnant. The offspring to whom they give birth are strange, unsmiling, highly intelligent children. Infant prodigies are not unheard of, to be sure, and a whole crop of them in one little town may be just barely within the realm of statistical possibility, but when these creepy children begin to display abilities that no human has ever had, it becomes clear that they are not of this earth. The only question is whether it is too late to do anything about it.

"Rosemary's Baby" (1968). Roman Polanski directed the film version of Ira Levin's shuddery novel about a young couple whose pregnancy is appropriated by Satan himself. When Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband (John Cassavetes) move into their new apartment in New York City, their elderly neighbors seem to take an unusual interest in them. When Rosemary becomes pregnant, this interest escalates to the level of intrusiveness. Gradually, Rosemary becomes convinced that she has fallen in with a coven of Satanists and that she is carrying the child of the Devil.

"Demon Seed" (1977). If you think being impregnated by space aliens or by Satan sounds incredible, wait till you hear the premise of this film. When a scientist invents a supercomputer called Proteus IV, it rapidly develops an independent consciousness. As a consequence, Proteus becomes possessed of all that goes with consciousness, including an ego and the desire to propagate. Most of all, like a cybernetic Pinocchio, Proteus wants to become an organic being. After gaining control of the electronically controlled doors, lights, and other gadgets in his creator's house, Proteus imprisons the scientist's wife (Julie Christie). Using threats to elicit her cooperation, Proteus plans to implant genetic material in her womb, which will develop into a fetus that can ultimately serve as an organic vessel for his consciousness. This way-out story could easily have become laughable, but the script by Robert Jaffe and Roger Hirson, based on the novel by Dean Koontz, skillfully avoids the many pitfalls to create a startlingly credible realization of the farfetched premise.

As any expectant parent can tell you, pregnancy is inevitably an anxious time. Lurking behind the joyous expectation there is always the concern that something might go wrong. That's what makes these films so emotionally gripping. With that in mind, perhaps they ought to carry the same warning as many carnival rides: "not recommended during pregnancy."

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