Though a mostly overlooked and forgotten gem, “Grace” offers a deeply affecting look at the unspoken fears of motherhood and the depth of a mother’s love.
Pregnancy brings on a flurry of new emotions—joy, excitement, anticipation. But the one that the baby books don’t really dig into is fear, although those same books will give you plenty of examples of what to be afraid of.
Assuming your baby is carried to full term without miscarrying or growing outside of your uterus, you have a laundry list of labor complications, birth defects, and possible medical negligence to consider. Then there are the many terrible things that could happen once you get your bundle of joy back to your woefully underprepared house.
That expensive car seat could be installed incorrectly, or that darling crib bumper could be a death trap waiting to happen, or your helpless newborn could be smothered by the cat. Not to mention the fear of the monster you might turn into due to lack of sleep, failure to bond, or the dreaded diagnosis of postpartum psychosis.
The commonplace nature of these incidents is almost as terrifying as how random they can be.
For every one horror story with a direct cause and effect, there are ten that happened “out of the blue.” There is no shortage of nightmares to endure for a first time mother-to-be.
THE FEAR OF MOTHERHOOD
Thankfully, most of these fears can be kept at bay with regular doctor’s appointments, a strong support system, and at least one ultrasound to assure you that your baby looks human and has a strong heartbeat.
But that doesn’t mean the horror genre can’t milk those anxieties for all their worth!
“Mommy horror” is nothing new in the industry.
Most of these skew tongue in cheek, if not full camp. Because we’re all pretty much in on the joke from the jump—tee-hee, we’re expecting a little monster! Very few play it completely straight, and they often end up forgotten among their splashier, more Omen-esque cousins.
Even fewer dive into the mindset of the creature even more frightening than that screeching little demon—the mother desperate to keep it alive.
Grace stars Jordan Ladd (Cabin Fever, Death Proof) as Madeline, an expectant mother whose birth plan might as well be spelled out in granola and lemongrass.
Her strict vegetarian diet is only matched by her choice in a birthing center. The place is oozing with white upper class zen, complete with vaulted glass ceilings, hanging greens, birthing pools and vegan cookies.
On top of that, her midwife Patricia also happens to be an old friend (re: definitely more than friends) who has her absolute best interests at heart while happily acquiescing to any and all of Madeline’s new age plans. All of this is uncomfortable for her husband and downright horrifying to her mother-in-law.
But Madeline admirably holds firm to her beliefs and doesn’t even flinch at the offhand remarks her “unconventional” birth plan provokes.
She has lost pregnancies before, and she is determined to do things her way.
Tragedy strikes when a car accident claims both her husband and her baby. And in her grief, Madeline insists on carrying to term. When the baby is born dead, she is left alone to say goodbye. But when Patricia returns to collect her, she finds Madeline cradling a perfectly healthy newborn, whom she names Grace.
She brings home her bundle of joy and starts their new life together, but Grace soon reveals herself to be no normal baby. She has a very specific diet, and it will take enormous sacrifices from her mother to keep her alive.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE: WHEN ART AND REALITY COLLIDE
As I write this, I’m currently expecting my first baby. From the moment I found out, my craving for horror (in particular, feminine horror) is stronger than it’s ever been. The day I peed on that stick (full disclosure, it was four sticks, just to be sure) that revealed my future, I came home and put on Rosemary’s Baby—you know, to celebrate.
It’s a movie I’ve seen countless times, but with hormones surging and motherhood impending, it takes on a whole new context that breathes new life into it.
Horror has always been around to help me wrap my head around and come to terms with certain ideas and events that may be too much to just imagine in a straightforward way—both the good and the bad. It’s been a tremendous therapy tool in my anxieties about motherhood, and lord knows there is no shortage of films to pull from.
So what better time to revisit Grace than upon finding out I had my own little monster on the way?
It had been sitting on the shelf in my DVD collection for some time, picked up from a going out of business sale at a video store years ago, just waiting to be cracked open again. I had not seen it since that first watch ten years ago, and my husband had never seen it at all—all the more reason to give it a spin.
“Zombie baby” sounded just fun and creepy enough to enjoy on a weeknight over dinner.
It only took about 15 minutes for my husband to get really uncomfortable, and about 30 minutes for me to be fighting back tears. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking this is a fun little farce about a blood-drinking baby, some modern indie update on It’s Alive!
THE AMPLIFICATION OF ANXIETY
This film is unsettling, and repulsive, and often so damn sad that your heart breaks before any blood-drinking even happens. It is so restrained and directly shows so little that it feels crass to even call it a zombie movie, or a vampire movie, or however you would classify a baby that lives off blood.
When that blood-drinking hook does kick in, it’s hardly what you would expect.
Grace certainly doesn’t appear to be what you would picture as a zombie baby—no open sores or glowing eyes or inhuman shrieking. She looks like a perfectly healthy baby girl, chubby cheeks and all. The fact that she needs something stronger than breastmilk to survive is not what makes her terrifying.
It’s that she reveals her strange condition not unlike how a real human baby would—without warning and with abrupt alarm, zero to sixty in one sudden agonizing wail. She throws up after being fed, she smells strange enough to draw flies, she mysteriously bleeds in the tub. Then she starts biting at Madeline’s breasts, and the pieces fall horribly into place.
Madeline is more or less alone in her struggle.
Despite some flimsy attempts to reach out to her midwife, she takes the mystery of Grace’s condition entirely upon herself. She realizes that her daughter is special, and tries to avoid the inevitable any way she can—like any new mother, she improvises.
She tries to wash away the rotting smell, she hangs flypaper and mosquito netting to keep the bugs off the baby, and she even (shudder) purchases bloody steaks to squeeze dry into a baby bottle. But when none of this works, she nobly accepts the burden of sacrificing her own flesh and blood to, well, her flesh and blood.
She lets herself literally be sucked dry for the sake of her child, and even if she is wasting away (trying to keep total collapse at bay with protein shakes and soy beans), at least Grace has finally stopped crying.
But then come the outsiders—the well-meaning midwife, the creepy doctor, the nosy mother-in-law, with all their questions and concerns and desire to see the baby.
Madeline can’t let them get close, because much like her veganism and natural birth plan, she knows it will only open the floodgates to criticism. She knows what she’s doing is unorthodox, but it’s working, and she doesn’t need anyone stomping in and ruining everything.
She knows she’s not a bad mother, but she also knows that no one will understand Grace the way she does, and she won’t let anyone take her away. Anyone who tries will fall victim to a fierce mother’s iron will.
If Grace does stumble at all, it’s in its final act. Madeline’s increasingly desperate acts must inevitably end with a big bloody splash that oversteps the admirable restraint of the preceding 90 minutes—the only other route is handcuffs (and after all we’ve been through together, we do want to see Madeline be okay in the end).
The very last shot of the film is downright silly compared to everything that’s come before it—Madeline calmly utters “she’s teething” before lifting her shirt to reveal her hideously gnawed-away breast, prompting the audience to clutch our own breasts and “eek!” in horror.
It’s a weird midnight madness note to end on for such a somber film, and sort of suggests we should have been getting those kinds of cheap thrills this whole time.
But, for all its tonal dissonance and its inevitable careening into more traditional horror show territory in its final minutes, it is a more satisfying ending than, say, Madeline being taken away and her monster baby left to wreak havoc on the system.
AN UNDISCOVERED GEM
Grace celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, and in the past decade, it’s barely come up in the conversation of great modern horror films.
Despite premiering at Sundance in 2009, it was overshadowed by some brighter stars, along with being lost in the shuffle of the pretty decent output from its horror peers that year. Maybe I only remember it because it came around when I was fresh into my full commitment to this horror-hound lifestyle.
I only ever saw the movie that first rental watch, but somehow it stuck, this gloomy little film about a woman struggling with her uniquely difficult newborn.
It wasn’t until I found I was pregnant with my own firstborn that I wanted to revisit it.
The maternal instinct was never especially strong with me. Some women bring new life into the world by way of science and timing and sheer force of will, but I never considered that I would have the opportunity. Years ago, I was told by a doctor that the cysts on my ovaries would make it “very difficult” to get pregnant.
Being a gleefully irresponsible college student at the time, I nearly threw my hand up for a high five (the doctor was not amused). Pregnancy was something that I didn’t consider would ever really happen to me, and I honestly didn’t think this body that ran off little else beyond caffeine and nicotine was even capable of creating life.
It wasn’t something that ever really bothered me until I settled down with my husband. His family started asking about grandchildren almost immediately after meeting me. For his part, much less often and with more subtlety, he would drop hints about what our imminent future progeny might be like. I would nod and smile and say “maybe one day” but couldn’t bear to come out with what I thought was the truth: that it simply wouldn’t happen.
Then, one day, it did…and to my own surprise, I was thrilled.
But then comes the fear.
The sudden jolt of terror at every new symptom. The anxious wondering of “Is this normal?” and “Am I doing this right?” The distinct feeling of something literally crawling under your skin. The horrors of giving birth. The dread of what will come out of you, of how your body will cope with such trauma. The creeping inevitability of a new screaming presence in your life, shattering the familiar and turning your world upside down.
And then comes the biggest fear of all—what if I’m a bad parent? All the while, everyone around is asking you the where and how of your plans like you should have been preparing for this your entire life.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Grace tackles the fear not just of motherhood, but the criticism new motherhood inevitably faces.
Everyone from your partner, to your mother-in-law, to your doctor, to complete strangers has a list of questions–and if your answer skews a little new age or unconventional, or simply not the way they would have done it, you’re faced with a raised eyebrow and a lecture of the “right” way to go about it.
Of course they mean well, and in some cases, it makes sense to take their advice. But still, when that advice is coming from all directions from all different sources, and all of them are basically telling you “you’re doing it wrong”, it can become a cesspool of frustration, confusion, and despair.
It’s the feeling of “I can’t do this” mixed with “I’m just going to do what I think is best”, which in Madeline’s case, causes her to isolate herself to such an extreme that when someone from the outside world does get a glimpse, they only see an exhausted, wild-eyed woman desperately trying to keep anyone from seeing her screaming baby.
Grace doesn’t bother with any cosmic bargains or demon seed to explain itself.
It hinges entirely on the power of a mother’s love. How far would you go for the well-being of your child? It poses a question not exactly of the fear of the child itself, but of our capacity to meet our child’s needs.
We’re in an age of competitive parenting, with every mommy blog and Facebook post at the ready to defend or decry whatever method you subscribe to. Who is right in this sea of combative opinions, not to mention the “good Samaritans” eager to catch a parent being negligent?
All the baby books in the world can’t truly prepare you for supporting brand new screaming pooping life. A baby is a largely unknowable creature, every one unique, so you only know you’re doing it the wrong way when it spits back in your face. Otherwise, all you can do is play it by ear.
Madeline’s brand of mothering shows us that at the end of the day, we’re all just trying our best and sometimes, we can only believe in our own intuition. All the well-meaning advice cannot always have the answer to what our baby needs, it can only hazard a guess.
That lack of guarantees is definitely frightening, but I suppose, it’s also what makes the experience so special.