In a hospital morgue, a stillborn baby girl is brought back to life by a sudden power surge. The attendant on duty, whom we can charitably describe as “oddball”, takes the thought-to-be-deceased child and raises her with the help of his mother. Flash forward to her sixteenth birthday, when a family feud escalates far more quickly and violently than anyone had foreseen. This ends with Tess escaping and in possession of the information she needs to track down her birth mother, actress Lena O’Neil (Barbara Crampton).
Discovering she has to power to harness electricity, Tess (Kayleigh Gilbert) leaves a trail of carnage in her wake as she disposes of anyone who gets in her way. Meanwhile, L.A. detective Marc Fox (Michael Paré) is investigating the escalating incidents of destruction across the city and trying to work out who is responsible for the strange crimes being committed.
With a Carrie-esque plot and compact running time (77 minutes), Julian Richards’ charged tale of retribution and reunification wastes little time is getting down to the gruesome goods, opening with some highly questionable behaviour from morgue employee Ken which, one impressively flashy – and I mean flashy – credits sequence later, turns into some downright skin-crawling treatment of his sham sister. We don’t need to be shown what he’s capable of doing to know that the guy’s a monster.
The first ten minutes benefit immeasurably from a shudder-inducing performance from Chaz Bono who, as Ken, is creepy beyond belief here. It’s both a shame and a relief that the character is unceremoniously removed from the proceedings before we pick up the main thrust of the plot, focusing on struggling actress Lena and the attempts of Tess to connect with her.
Say what you like about the quality of some of the films Barbara Crampton’s been in, she always turns into a fine performance and that’s certainly the case here. As Lena, she inhabits a character whose acting career has been on the downturn for a while and for whom the years have made her guarded and standoffish. This calls for a more subdued performance than you might normally expect, given some of her more well-known horror roles, but she’s as reliably excellent as ever.
When we first meet her, she’s fake-stabbing her agent Dory (an icy Rae Dawn Chong) as they run a scene together and we soon discover that Lena is giving acting classes on the side while trying to land a role which may revive her career. With a previous tragedy continuing to cast a shadow on all that she does, is her heart still in it? Encouraged by her therapist to confront that defining event by burying – literally – the past, Lena is set on a collision course with the daughter she never knew was still alive.
As much as the story strays towards a checklist of “wronged girl gets revenge” tropes, right down to the supporting characters who are bumped off for transgressions both major and relatively minor, Reborn does have a rather fine roster of performers who could probably do this kind of thing in their sleep but have resisted phoning it in. Paré commits to the material even when the plot is at its wackiest and his quiet, caring ‘tec is a refreshing change for the usual “I’m cracking this case, GODDAMNIT!” types, even though one particular piece of evidence collection had me shouting “Don’t do that!”.
Elsewhere, Rae Dawn Chong seems to be having a lot of fun is the smaller role of Dory, going about her business of being someone you would not want to mess with by virtue of a few well chosen words and allowing those up against her to realise the consequences of dicking her about rather than making a spectacle.
Into this world of people who don’t scream to get what they want, there is balance and then some in the form of Tess, whose tolerance for being metaphorically shit on has long since passed and now needs the merest of provocations to turn on the wattage. This does call on Kayleigh Gilbert to alternate between timid and full-on, batshit crazy for most of the time and, to be fair, she does a good job.
Michael Mahin’s script does throw her one standout scene, though, in which Tess and Lena play out a scene in the acting class as mother and daughter, with Lena completely oblivious to the ramifications of that. Okay, it may be a little on-the-nose but as a dramatic sequence in the midst of what could be classed as mostly standard horror fare otherwise, it’s a pleasing diversion.
The look of Tess, with her dark hair, sunken eyes and perma-frown, is bang on the money as far as badass horror chick chic goes and this does give the electrical action some juice as she fries her victims with as much variety as her gifts will allow, i.e. not much. In the end, it’s all about the electrocution, even when it’s administered in a slightly less obvious way. Still, the kills are all competently handled and hit the mark even if they’re not especially eye-catching, save for one daft but dazzling demise which is played out twice (you get to see a CCTV replay of it a little while after it first happens).
The final act plays out exactly as you’d expect, as the past is revealed and all parties gather for a denouement which will surprise very few of us. And yet, for all of its formulaic genre trappings – right down to a shamelessly amusing re-run of a classic shock from, yes, Carrie – this is worth a watch for its cast of well-known faces, its decent gore effects and its production values. This results in a glossier product than its familiar source material may have lent itself to in other hands.
Ultimately, Reborn is less dark than it seemingly sets out to be but it just about manages to juggle the affecting and the absurd. There are far worse ways to spend your time and, if nothing else, it demonstrates once again that Barbara Crampton is a talent the horror community – hell, the cinema community – should cherish.