Remakes and reinventions of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel, Frankenstein, are hardly new concepts. The monster created by the titular scientist has been a fixture in pop culture ever since Boris Karloff first donned his iconic bolts and prosthetics, showing up in everything from comic books to children’s cartoons. Dr. Frankenstein himself is hardly a stranger to onscreen interpretations, having been played by the likes of James McAvoy and Peter Cushing, just to namedrop a couple.
Rarely, though, are the characters of the classic tale portrayed as women. This is the idea behind Laura Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien’s latest horror offering, Birth/Rebirth. While the film is hardly a direct remake of Shelley’s novel or any of the numerous films that followed, it does maintain enough of the core conceits to make it instantly recognizable as a product of Frankenstein‘s influence.
Frankenstein From a Modern Woman’s Perspective
Dr. Rose Casper, played by Marin Ireland, is a modern day mad scientist by most conceivable definitions of the term. She’s obsessively driven in her goal of finding a cure for death. She uses her own body in her research just as she would any other lab utensil, and isn’t afraid of putting herself in real physical danger if it moves her closer to what she’s trying to accomplish. For all intents and purposes, she is the Dr. Frankenstein of Birth/Rebirth.
The other main character, ostensibly the film’s Igor, is Celie Morales, a maternity nurse played by Judy Reyes, undoubtedly to the delight of Scrubs fans everywhere. Celie has just lost her daughter under sudden and tragic circumstances, and isn’t quite sure what to do next, only that she knows she wants to see her daughter one last time. The only problem, of course, is that her daughter’s body has gone missing. This leads Celie on a collision course with Dr. Casper, and that’s when we finally get to meet the monster.
In true Frankenstein fashion, the monster itself is entirely misunderstood. Neither good nor evil, it simply is — it exists at the whims of its creator, its tether to life tenuous at best and always in danger of being severed. It has a few scary moments, but it should come as no surprise that the film’s true horrors are perpetrated by its human characters.
Birth/Rebirth Works as Both a Psychological Horror and a Buddy Comedy of Errors
From a certain point of view, Birth/Rebirth could almost be a buddy comedy. Sure, it’s steeped in incredibly dark and morose themes; it’s a twisted representation of the fears, anxieties, and guilt that often come part and parcel with motherhood. But it’s also got plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor up its sleeve, and many of the darker moments are clearly played just as much for laughs as they are for thrills.
Judy Reyes gives an incredibly emotional performance which becomes more and more delightfully unhinged as the film progresses, and fans will be relieved to know that her comedic timing is perfectly intact here. She differs from the traditional Igor character in a lot of ways, not the least of which being her noticeable lack of any physical deformities and her obvious ability to match wits and fortitude with her de facto partner, at least after she finds her footing.
Meanwhile, Marin Ireland’s Dr. Casper is exactly the level of matter-of-fact deadpan that one would expect from a Dr. Frankenstein character, and this makes for some great moments of levity when extremely morbid topics are being casually discussed. It’s clear that both actresses are having a lot of fun with the roles, and the chemistry is unmistakable.
Make no mistake, though, Birth/Rebirth is gross where it needs to be and is all the right levels of disturbing for a psychological horror film. Casper’s methods of generating working materials will make probably make even the most seasoned horror fans at least a little bit squeamish. There’s no shortage of gore either, and it often comes in unexpected ways to consistently make you incredibly uncomfortable.
But all of it plays into the film’s morbid sense of humor, so you’re likely to find yourself chuckling even while you’re watching through gaps in your fingers.
Birth/Rebirth Is Good, but What Comes Next Could Be Even Better
The movie largely takes place in two or three main locations, and it makes the most of its intimate settings. The concepts are intriguing, the performances are top-notch, the special effects are absolutely visceral. Still, there is a sense that the story is unfinished, and a lot of the major moments feel like teases for the monumental possibilities being presented. The core strength of the film is in the chemistry between its leads which, thankfully, is more than enough to keep the audience invested.
It’s too bad that Birth/Rebirth ends where it does. Without spoiling too much, it stops rather abruptly at a place where it feels like the leads are finally starting to gel in a really fun and mischievous way. Hopefully, we will get the opportunity to see them explore that relationship further.
From IFC Films, Birth/Rebirth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2023 and was recently screened at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal before seeing a limited theatrical release, and you can find some showtimes here. Make sure to watch this space for more information regarding the film’s wide release on Shudder.