Reborn (2018)

“Don’t worry, I’m method.” 

With these words, young, entitled starlet Gia Fontaine (Alexa Maris) justifies her insistence upon improvising a scene (about a meeting between a long-estranged mother and daughter) before she has even finished reading the script pages. “Oh,” says Lena O’Neil (Barbara Crampton), rolling her eyes, “Got it.”.

Middle-aged Lena – old enough to be Gia’s actual mother – has far more experience as an actress, but after a decade of absence from the big screen, is now an acting coach, and has had the monstrous Gia foisted upon her by her agent Dory (Rae Dawn Chong, Commando, 1985) as part of a quid pro quo deal to get Lena a coveted audition for Peter Bogdanovich’s latest project. 

Reborn is a movie of method acting and motherhood, although it disguises itself as the sort of “B-movie trash” (as Gia calls it) for which Lena was once celebrated. This of course echoes the actual career of Crampton, who rose to fame in films like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) – and a poster for the latter is prominently visible on the wall of her character Lena’s living room. Much as Crampton’s own career as one of genre cinema’s great scream queens was, after a long sojourn on daytime television, recently ‘reborn’ (in films like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, Ted Geoghehan’s We Are Still Here, Ben Cresciman’s Sun Choke, Abner Pastoll’s Road Games, Jackson Stewart’s Beyond The Gates, Norbert Keil’s Replace and Brad Baruh’s Dead Night), Lena too longs to return to her glory days. She has, however, been professionally hampered by an enduring trauma that has made her lose her acting chops: her unresolved sense of grief and guilt about a baby daughter who was stillborn 16 years earlier, in late 2000. Before Lena can return to acting, she must, on the advice of kindly therapist Dr Hetch (Monte Markham), learn to put her past to rest – or at least to exploit it in her performance.

This is only half the story. For Reborn opens in late 2000 with a dead baby girl in a hospital morgue being brought to life, like Frankenstein’s monster, by a lightning strike. Sixteen years later to the day, Tess (Kayleigh Gilbert) is being kept locked up in the home of perverted hospital cleaner Ken Stern (Chaz Bono) – and if Ken has his own Psycho-like mother fixations, unloved, unstable Tess also wants only to be reunited with her lost mum, and will not hesitate to use her preternatural powers over electricity – and to leave behind a trail of corpses – in her quest for a mother’s love. Inevitably Lena and Tess will be brought together, after a meet-cute in an acting class, into an emotional, violent confrontation from which one of them will emerge a performer truly able to draw on her own long-buried feelings – entirely in keeping with the principles of method acting.

Eighties elegy: Barbara Crampton and Michael Paré

As we follow Tess on her malicious murder spree, with the mournful Detective Marc Fox (Michael Paré, Streets of Fire, 1984) always one step behind, these supernatural slashing feels like pure pre-CGI retro schlock, pitched somewhere between Firestarter (1984), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987), Shocker (1989) and Return of the Living Dead III (1993) – films of course coming from the period in which Crampton, Chong and Paré were all enjoying their (first) movie heyday. Yet the LA setting, and the presentation of Lena’s nightmarish visions on an equal footing with her waking experiences, create a hall of mirrors, where we are never quite sure whether what we are watching is unfolding in reality, or merely in Lena’s headspace, as she works imaginatively through ambivalent feelings about unrealised maternity, all in preparation for a rôle (as a mother) in, precisely, a schlocky genre movie. 

Having already shown a mastery of metacinematic materials with his The Last Horror Movie (2003), here director Julian Richards plays out familiar genre tropes and scenarios as a means of showing an actress finding her way into a genre part, and undergoing her own form of professional rebirth. It will turn out that the film for which Lena is auditioning is called Darklands – which is in fact the title of Richards’ 1996 feature debut. It is as though everyone here must look back to their past before moving on – and the resulting echo chamber, built of bygone clichés and resurrecting long-aborted ideas, is a lot more sophisticated and self-conscious than it first appears. Richards brings real method to all the madness, while his two female leads, as actors playing actors play-acting mother and daughter, show a genuinely layered versatility and range of performance styles. Reborn is all at once an elegy for the lost Eighties, and a rehearsal for their renaissance.

© Anton Bitel