At least at the outset, Grace looks to be a healthy and otherwise ordinary, beautiful baby girl. The signs that something's not quite right start to emerge once Madeline takes her newborn daughter home. Clumps of hair fall out when brushed, and bathwater leaves Grace with a bloodied rash. Her temperature is inhumanly low. Flies swarm around her crib, and nothing seems to be able to wash away her unusual scent. Madeline is concerned but hardly terrified; this is her daughter, and whatever it is that's happening, she'll find some way of working around it. Madeline is a vegan with no interest in cold, sterile hospitals or prepackaged formula. She sets out to sustain her daughter herself, and after waking up from one feeding session to a bloodied breast, Madeline quickly realizes that Grace thirsts for something other than milk. Grace needs blood -- human blood -- and as Madeline buckles under the physical strain of her daughter literally draining the life out of her, she walls herself away from the world outside. Madeline's mother-in-law Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), meanwhile, is still reeling from the loss of her son: so desperately aching to return to being a mother that she even wills her body into producing milk once again. Vivian is hellbent on reclaiming that bond between mother and child, having decided that the daughter-in-law that's cut herself off from the world at large isn't fit to care for baby Grace. Having suffered through so much, though, Madeline isn't going to hand over her very special baby girl without a fight...
The concept of a baby with a seemingly insatiable thirst for blood may sound like a page torn out of yet another It's Alive! sequel, but one of the elements that's so engaging about Grace is that there is no creature...no threat that must be destroyed. Grace is a newborn: incapable of attacking anyone or defending herself. There's no cruelty or malice in what she does, and she can't help that her continued survival is both a miracle and a curse. She's just hungry, and Grace's body is physically incapable of digesting anything but human blood. Madeline willingly subjects herself to the bulk of the torment as well, never preying on others to feed her love. Everything she does is to protect her child, and those that are attacked by Madeline are intruders with an agenda, not hapless bystanders caught in the crossfire. She suffers much more pain of her own free will than she ever inflicts.
It's startling to think that Grace is only the first feature to be written and directed by Solet. The confidence, intelligence, and craftsmanship here are of such an exceptionally high caliber that they seem as if they've been honed over the course of decades behind the camera, and if he can produce something this extraordinary his first time out, then the future of the genre looks to be in very capable hands. Grace has too much respect for both itself and its audience to disinterestedly settle into cliché. Again, there is no monster, and it doesn't bother with any sort of struggle between good and evil. Solet shies away from jump scares and the usual reams of exposition. He recognizes that the horror films that are the most unrelentingly intense are the ones where the audience has a true investment in the characters, and at its core, Grace is a character study. It's one thing to watch some double-digit IQ kid hop off his girlfriend and walk straight into a machete, but the red shirts in slasher flicks are one-note cariactures: Grace is populated with complex, believable, and well-realized people. It's a mindless laugh to watch a cardboard cutout be hacked apart, but to watch a person suffer...?
Grace's story is told largely through its visuals. While any other horror movie would've opened with a quick scare before settling into a prolonged setup, the first image of Grace is Jordan Ladd quietly, distantly staring off into space, raising her knees as her husband grunts and thrusts inside her. There's no need for a long, rambling backstory or to have its characters spell out precisely what's running through their minds; without a word of dialogue, everything you need to know is right there. The storytelling is consistently sleek and efficient throughout, gradually fleshing out the color of these characters' backgrounds over time rather than lobbing out the exposition all at once. A single, subtle facial expression can say so much more than pages upon pages of dialogue, and Grace benefits enormously from having such a talented cast to bring these characters to life. Gabrielle Rose takes a character like Vivian that in any other hands would've settled into a shrill harpy of a mother-in-law cariacture, shaping a wounded woman tormented by a sense of longing. She's an antagonist, yes, but can't possibly be considered a villain. In her own mind, a mature, intelligent woman -- a judge, even -- would justifiably be considered the best person to care for baby Grace. It's a selfish decision, in fact -- formed without ever having so much as glimpsed the child and dismissing Madeline as unstable and unfit sight-unseen as well -- but Vivian desperately wants to believe she's doing the right thing. There's no greater threat than moral certainty.
The movie's most exceptional performance, somewhat surprisingly, belongs to Jordan Ladd. I'm used to seeing her as the spunky girlfriend type, but her turn here is nothing short of spectacular. Grace is a film about longing and isolation, and Ladd spends the overwhelming majority of the film on-screen by herself. Grace may be the driving force of the plot but really isn't in front of the camera all that
That sense of skill and craftsmanship extends to every last aspect of Grace. This is a strikingly beautiful film, and there were several moments throughout Grace where I'd pause at just how gorgeous and artful it can be: Vivian dusting off a breast pump in a room with decades-old photographs scattered across the floor and a bloodied Madeline standing over Grace's crib as dawn just begins to break in particular are deeply impressive. While too many horror movies lean on a piercingly jagged soundtrack and overcaffeinated editing as a crutch, Grace instead takes the time to build an eerie, unnerving sense of atmosphere that never relents. Even its score is largely ambient in nature, immediately establishing a tone and bolstering the strength of the story while resisting the temptation to hold the audience's hand. Grace is an example of talent and intelligence winning out over cheap gimmickry, and that is why the film is ultimately so effective. The movie is agonizingly intense because of its forboding tone and the strength of its performances. It's visceral, yes -- and if you can make it through that final shot without screaming, you're one-up on me -- but Grace accomplishes this without overindulging itself with buckets of blood or an eight-figure CGI budget. After all, this is a movie about characters tormented by their isolation, and it acknowledges that the most effective way to accomplish this can be through silence and emptiness.
The only misstep that Grace makes, really, is adding in a lesbian stalker subplot. Admittedly, this is actually handled fairly well -- boiling it down to a terse couple of words makes it sound as if it's been carved straight out of a daytime soap, but it certainly doesn't feel that way on-screen -- but that minor side story does seem somewhat out of step with the rest of the film. Otherwise, though, Grace stands on the brink of perfection, even managing to deftly incorporate a cacklingly dark sense of humor at times.
I spend so much time wading through mindless slasher flicks and sadistic torture-porn that I sometimes forget just how powerful horror can be at its best. Grace is an astonishingly well-crafted film, intense and disturbing on more of a primal emotional level rather than relying on quick scares and rubber intestines to get a reaction. The movie is admittedly a slow burn, and although that's one of its greatest assets, horror fanatics weaned on more visceral fare may lack the patience to fully appreciate it. That's their loss. Jordan Ladd points to Polanski's Repulsion as one of the primary inspirations for her performance here, and that's a terrific point of comparison: unnerving and artistic, these are character-driven films that transcend genre trappings...they're what horror and suspense at their best ought to aspire to be. Highly Recommended.
I have to
Even though my kneejerk reaction was that Grace had to have been shot on HDV, I really do love the look of the movie. This is a film that prefers to let its visuals tell its story, and the subdued palette, the limited contrast, and its ample grain further flesh out its unsettling tone while also infusing it with a sense of immediacy. I've suffered through more movies than I'd care to guess that've awkwardly clawed at the same approach, but while their execution too frequently comes across as obvious and gimmicky, Grace's visual approach is understanded and exceptionally effective. It's by design not a movie that's polished to a glossy sheen on Blu-ray, though. The scope image is deliberately flat and undersaturated, and the choice of film stock coupled with a run-and-gun shoot that relies primarily on limited, practical light leaves it swarming with film grain. Grace's visuals are somewhat soft and lacking in fine detail though are still instantly recognizable as high definition.
Grace's VC-1 encode is saddled with an unusually low bitrate, struggling at times with the weight of its heavy sheen of grain. There are a couple of moments where the image distorts as the camera is tilted up or down, almost as if most of the frame had moved but part of it hadn't quite caught up yet. There's a similar effect when this footage is shown in standard definition in the extras, though, so I'm not sure if that dates back to the original photography or if it's a telecine hiccup. Again, this is a movie that very deliberately isn't meant to sparkle and gleam -- it's not exactly going to play in a loop to help move overpriced TVs at Best Buy or anything -- but as beautiful and effective as it is in its own way, I can't shake the sense that Grace ought to look at least somewhat better than this. Still, Grace is such a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray -- rendered well enough that the film is still able to draw much of its strength from its visuals -- that I hope my mixed reaction doesn't sway anyone away from giving it a look.
Grace's PCM 5.1 audio is understatedly powerful as well, recognizing again that sometimes the greatest impact can be made without veering deliriously over-the-top the way most genre soundtracks do. Its sound design is eerie and unnerving without really ever drawing attention to itself. The surround channels are reserved largely for atmospheric color and to reinforce its predominately ambient score. Key effects sound phenomenal -- the swift savagery of an accident on the road, particularly -- and the onslaught of flies convincingly buzz from one speaker to the next. Grace isn't the sort of movie that has a mission statement to rattle the room, but it does boast a healthy low-end when called for, such as some of the pounding percussion in the score. The film's dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, never overwhelmed by any other elements in the mix. While most horror movies opt for colossal, thunderous sound to hammer home their scares, Grace prefers instead to take a more low-key yet exceptionally effective approach, and that has been reproduced flawlessly on Blu-ray.
A traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included alongside optional English (SDH) subtitles.
It's a definite disappointment that this Blu-ray disc shrugs off the original six-minute short, although at least Icons of Fright is streaming it on their website...including a version with audio commentary, even. Several deleted and extended scenes are mentioned throughout the two commentaries on this disc -- not all of which were actually filmed, admittedly -- but none of that footage has made its way to this disc either. Otherwise, though, the extras on Grace are phenomenal. It may not have as many bulletpoints as quite a few other special editions, but that really doesn't matter; this is one of the most endlessly engaging releases I've had the pleasure of delving into all year. There's no filler or lightweight promotional featurettes scattered around here, and every last bit of it is essential viewing.
The Final Word
A parasitic creature gestating inside of you, feeding off you, distorting your body as its own continues to grow...the intensity and agony of its eventual, bloody release...latching on and continuing to drain your bodily fluids even after being expelled... There's something inherently unsettling and powerful about childbirth, and Grace builds on that to produce one of the most unnerving, resonant, and masterfully crafted works of horror I've ever seen. In lesser hands, this would've been a movie with a CGI moppet ripping out people's throats in between lazy jump scares, but writer/director Paul Solet is entirely too talented to settle for anything like that. No, with a remarkably assured hand, Solet melds the primal intensity of childbirth with an atmospheric, intensely character-driven approach to horror. Grace isn't just one the most exceptional genre pieces of recent memory; it's among the best movies of the year, period. Grace would be a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray in any case, but the sheer quality of its audio commentaries and a feature-length assortment of other extras make it that much more compelling. This isn't just essential viewing for horror fanatics but a reminder just how artistic, powerful, and unrelentingly intense the genre can be at its best. Very, very Highly Recommended.