John Carpenter’s PRO-LIFE turns abortion into a pro-choice horror story that is still relevant
It’s been around 50 years since the landmark case of Roe v. Wade was decided in the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a woman’s right to have an abortion. An aggressively controversial point of contention since, it has once again stoked the fires of discord after Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion on a potential repeal of the decision was leaked to the public. The abortion rights forecast is looking grim, based on Alito’s draft, and America is getting ready for a big blow to women’s rights that will undoubtedly change the social, economic, and cultural landscape for years to come.
Horror thrives in these historical moments. There’s still nothing quite like substituting social fears with monsters that represent the chaos people can wreak upon themselves while defending or attacking something they hold so dear to their being. In the case of abortion, one need look no further than John Carpenter’s Pro-Life (2006), the legendary director’s second entry into the Masters of Horror anthology series that aired on Showtime.
Pro-Life centers on an abortion clinic that receives an emergency patient (played by Caitlin Wachs) whose pregnancy is revealed to have been the result of a demonic rape. The young woman is desperate for an abortion. The baby starts to grow at an alarmingly rapid pace, an affront to nature and all that’s expected of a standard pregnancy.
The patient’s name is Angelique Burcell, later to be revealed as the daughter of resident religious fanatic Dwayne Burcell (a menacing presence interpreted by Ron Perlman). Dwayne has a history of protesting outside the clinic and is shown to be a staunch supporter of American gun rights as well.
Dwayne hears a Biblical voice, a voice of authority and force, that compels him to protect his daughter’s baby. He takes it as God calling to him to enact His will. The voice’s origin, though, might be coming from the side that stands opposite to holiness. In comes the horror metaphor for abortion.
Based on a script by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, Carpenter takes good care of the pieces he sets up to help get the point across. The movie’s abortion clinic setting carries a certain visual charge that immediately turns the location into a political battlefield. The place is locked up behind a gate and it’s overlooked by a security guard, all imagery that communicates the constant threat of extreme religious violence.
That threat is felt the moment Dwayne Burcell arrives at the clinic, with his daughter’s armed brothers riding in the back of his vehicle. Ron Perlman puts every available ounce of religious malice into his character in the service of presenting a man that’s been blinded by his faith to the point of confusing having control over someone for good intentions. The contradiction he upholds lies in his self-argued need for guns to do God’s work, which flies in the face of his own beliefs on the sanctity of human life.
Perlman’s cold and calm demeanor brings this unstable set of principles to the fore in a commanding way that exalts his misguided goal regarding human life. In his mind, taking someone else’s life is justified if it’s to guarantee a new life gets a chance.
The voice Dwayne hears becomes more important in this context. In certain decisive moments, where doubt rears its ugly head, a deep and not so angelic voice is heard saying “protect the baby.” Dwayne lets it guide his sons, and his gun, into the clinic. The metaphor here doesn’t really need that much heavy lifting in terms of making itself clear as the politicization of abortion has already been well documented.
Pro-Life uses what the audience already knows to provide a more terrifying look into the consequences of subscribing to the entire anti-abortion discourse. It doesn’t treat its audience as ignorant on the issues. It just turns to horror to add a sense of urgency to the problem and why it still deserves our attention. Sometimes, simplicity is scary enough.
The pregnancy itself follows suit, with the baby revealed to be a spider-like demon that makes a considerably strong case for being terminated well before it came to term. Carpenter takes the opportunity to show how unsustainable the pregnancy is for Angelique, the mother. The demon baby thrashes around inside her belly, all but guaranteeing the mother’s death upon birth. It’s a detail that contrasts well with Dwayne’s bent on ending several lives inside the clinic to save one new life. In this case, the demon baby’s grandfather has accepted the potential death of his daughter for the survival of the baby, meaning he gets to decide who lives and who dies between the two.
This might be where the movie’s metaphor hits the hardest. Carpenter tugs on every story strand and pulls every character arc together to show there is no such thing as pro-life. The very act of creating life, in whatever context, is founded on the concept of choice. In cases where a pregnancy can prove fatal to the mother, a choice between who lives and dies must be made.
In essence, Dwayne becomes the embodiment of the right to choose. And he chooses the demon baby.
There’s a lot left to say about Pro-Life. Dwayne’s beliefs contrast heavily with current discussions on whether abortions should be allowed for victims of rape or for risky pregnancies that put the mother at risk. This is a very delicate part of the debate and it seems to be leaning in favor of the pro-life sector. The presence of Angelique’s brothers also complicate the scenario as they decide to participate in the same violence Dwayne partakes in to “protect the baby.” It puts into question the role family plays in creating a religious identity infected by partisan politics and how damaging it can be when the relationships within the unit are so unequal (especially in terms of the rights available to them). Pro-Life invites discussion and relishes in it well after the movie’s over. As the American Supreme Court seemingly prepares to override Roe v. Wade, John Carpenter’s Pro-Life becomes an unconventional ally in the fight for women’s rights. It proves that sometimes it necessary to go to Hell and back to better appreciate our most important freedoms.