In 1902’s Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling famously explained how the leopard got his spots in what would today be deemed an…
I looked forward to Hulu’s original horror film False Positive, pitched as a modern-day Rosemary’s Baby. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival June 18.
Ilana Glaser of Broad City fame wrote the screenplay and stars as pregnant protagonist Lucy. Although the film cherrypicks memorable scenes from its predecessor, it nonetheless fails on several levels. The most obvious gaffe is the title: Lucy conceives, so there’s no false positive! The new film offends in many ways, but for me the ultimate explanation – spoiler alert ahead – which was “ripped from the headlines,” hit a little too close to home.
Ira Levin published the spellbindingly original Rosemary’s_Baby in 1967. The film came out a year later, starring Mia Farrow. Levin went on to tackle dystopia, writing 1972’s The Stepford Wives and in 1976, envisioning the cloned Nazis of The_Boys_from_Brazil.
Protagonist Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy have just moved into a monstrous apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that is actually the Dakota, the site of John Lennon’s shooting in 1980. Guy is a struggling actor whose luck begins to turn when he befriends creepy neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet. In an oddly vivid nightmare, Rosemary is raped by a monster with gleaming yellow eyes, and the next morning, she awakens to see claw marks on her skin. Soon after, she learns she’s pregnant.
The overly-friendly Minnie serves Rosemary mysterious daily green-hued drinks, but the pregnant woman grows increasingly ill, and develops a craving for raw meat. It happens. A nefarious doctor is involved too, as are the Castevet’s friends, aka a coven.
The pregnancy is difficult. Soon after giving birth, the sickly and skinny Rosemary learns that Satan is the biodad, and their devil spawn is to be called Adrian.
“He chose you out of all the world – out of all the women in the whole world, he chose you. He arranged things, because he wanted you to be the mother of his only living son,” burbles Minnie in reverence to the new mother.
The book ends with a glimpse of a cloven foot, a sure sign of the devil and his dominant trait. As the film ends, Rosemary snatches the cradle away from someone who’s rocking it too fast, slowing the movement and gazing lovingly at her newborn. The final scene is understated, wisely leaving the horror up to the viewer’s imagination. Instead, False Positive bludgeons the viewer with the grotesque.
Like Rosemary Woodhouse, Lucy Martin lives in Manhattan, with her husband, Adrian (Justin Theroux). Coincidence?
The couple hasn’t conceived after two years of trying, so they wind up in the office of fertility specialist Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), who is also Adrian’s mentor. Screenwriter Glaser is pregnant right now, so perhaps she can be forgiven for completely screwing up the timetable of human prenatal development in the film.
After listening to the couple’s description of their reproductive challenges, Dr. Hindle suggests they try intrauterine insemination – IUI, formerly known as artificial insemination. But if Adrian’s sperm won’t fertilize an egg the natural way, why would they do so when delivered using a pipette or turkey baster? There’s no mention of him having a low sperm count, which could be helped with concentrating multiple donations and using IUI.
Next, Dr. Hindle mentions Lucy’s low hCG level, which doesn’t make sense at all because she’s not yet pregnant. She wouldn’t be making “the pregnancy hormone” unless she was carrying a tumor.
Adrian, a physician, doesn’t pick up on these gaffes and trots off to provide a sample of his swimmers. Yo Adrian!
The evil, grinning Dr. Hindle shoots what we assume is Guy’s donation into naïve Lucy using a giant contraption that he invented. Soon after, at another visit, the doctor proclaims Lucy “100%” pregnant” as she helpfully pukes. Normally that wouldn’t happen for weeks or months.
The heartbeat shows up too early too. That causes Dr. Hindle to announce proudly, “This is normal for how much we boosted your numbers.” What numbers? The elusive hCG? IQ?
Uh oh! An ultrasound during the next visit reveals triplets – identical boys and a girl. The doctor begins to babble about a “selective reduction” to abort the puny female, whom Lucy favors and already calls Wendy. Adrian, again despite being a doctor, seems flummoxed by the idea of selective reduction, although it’s been around quite a while. Dr. Hindle kindly tells his patient that the deceased girl child will plop out at the birth still clinging to her placenta.
During the selective reduction, Lucy’s dream state echoes Rosemary’s during her devil insemination. She envisions Wendy as a 5-year-old with a devil’s face, and overhears Dr. Hindle and Adrian talking.
Soon after, still thinking she’s carrying Wendy and has aborted the boys, Lucy attends a pregnancy support group, where she introduces herself with “We did IVF too!” Well, no, they didn’t. At least one member of the mommies group is in cahoots with Dr. Hindle and Adrian, as are a pair of dastardly nurses – like Minnie and Roman Castevet’s friends in Rosemary’s Baby who were in on the devil conception.
After the reduction, Lucy suddenly bleeds. It’s just ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, reassures Dr. Hindle. Bright red blood dripping from one’s uterus mid-gestation is never to be taken so lightly – it happened to me. And ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome is a response to hormones given to mass-release eggs before trying to conceive. Was any actual research done for this film, or do they just throw around jargon?
Leaving the doctor’s office, Lucy spies Dr. Hindle’s photo on the cover of a magazine. The cover also features a celebrity midwife, Grace Singleton, whom Lucy consults. This was my favorite part of the film – Singleton provides a history of obstetrics and its male domination. At about this time, Adrian makes Lucy wear a weird bracelet, reminiscent of Rosemary’s green milkshakes feeding the devil Adrian. But the bracelet thing is dropped.
Finally, Lucy becomes suspicious. “Something’s not right with Wendy. I think Dr. Hindle did something to Wendy. And I think Adrian’s in on it,” she says to her friend Corgan (Sophia Bush), from the support group. It’s just mommy brain, Corgan admonishes.
Lucy’s unease grows, so in the third trimester the doc puts her on Xanax. Lucy, a copywriter at an ad agency, can’t possibly be dumb enough to think that Xanax is a good thing for a pregnant woman to take, every night no less. She needs it for “pre-partum depression,” the smarmy doctor points out.
So Lucy starts to investigate, and finds papers in a safe in Adrian’s home office. Corgan gave him the papers, medical records, when Lucy started sounding paranoid. They reveal that Lucy is part of a study and label her “dysfunctional” and “delusional.” “They’re trying to make me think I’m crazy!” she mutters to herself. Lucy dumps Dr. Hindle and signs on with feminist midwife Grace Singleton of magazine cover fame, who may or may not be implicated too. It’s hard to tell as dreams and narrative mix.
Next, Lucy’s at her baby shower. She spies Xanax in Corgan’s medicine cabinet, and deduces that instead of her friend just needing a drug that so many of us take, she’s in cahoots with Dr. Hindle. Conspiracy!
Lucy goes into labor at her baby shower, and in the next scene, the midwife is catching a boy falling out of our protagonist. Suddenly the midwife is covered in blood as Lucy has an explosive placental abruption. Grace hollers for her to go to the ER, but Adrian drags her off to Dr. Hindle, who delivers boy #2. Lucy overhears chatter that Adrian is joining Dr. Hindle’s practice, like Guy cavorting with the witches upstairs.
Next, apparently instantly recovered from two births and a placental abruption, Lucy snoops around the office suite and chances upon a room where tiny embryonic Wendy lies in a dish, still attached to her placenta and very much alive. She resembles a tiny baby, akin to prenatal humans hovering on the border between embryo and fetus that festoon signs of protestors at Planned Parenthood clinics.
Lucy marches back to the exam/treatment room to confront Dr. Hindle.
“Wait until you see how special these boys are!” gushes Adrian. Foreshadowing!
Finally, when we’re wondering whether Lucy’s newborn sons are akin to Rosemary’s – the devil’s offspring – Dr. Hindle veers off the rails and launches into a eugenics speech. He rants about the problems with society and how culling imperfect offspring can improve things.
“God doesn’t make babies, I do. I gave you the best genes there are: my own! And these boys will spread the seed.” Alas, reproduction doesn’t work that way. Lucy hasn’t mastered parthenogenesis, conceiving without a male, like flatworms or crayfish.
And so in False Positive there is no devil child or children – just an egotistical doctor drunk on his own power and ill-conceived greatness.
As the end thankfully looms, Lucy goes on a rampage – which is how the film begins. She stabs the robot-like nurse with a drug-filled needle and beats the bejesus out of the doctor. Then she smashes vial after vial of the stored seed of the madman, conjuring images of the angry Elisabeth Moss’s June Osborne character in The Handmaid’s Tale. Finally done, Lucy wanders out onto the streets, drenched in blood.
False Positive could have, should have, ended there, but it devolves further. Lucy envisions her two newborn sons floating out the window into oblivion, like Peter Pan, she laments. And their sister is Wendy. Get it?
Even worse, Lucy then picks up aborted embryo Wendy and tries to nurse her. The embryo opens perfect eyes, which wouldn’t have fully formed yet. If this scene is intended to mimic the serenity of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary in her final scene, it totally misses the mark. It’s just gross.
Sperm Donor Doctors For Real
Dr. Hindle is based on real doctors who used their sperm to inseminate many women. That upsets me, and likely many others who have discovered that they can trace their biological beginnings to donor sperm. Their intent was to help overcome infertility, and I don’t appreciate that being twisted into the plot of a horror film.
How many doctors have used their sperm to inseminate women, who may or may not have been aware of what was happening? It’s impossible to know, for many records were destroyed or never kept.
For Indiana fertility doctor Donald Cline, the number of offspring is more than 50. Philip Peven fathered hundreds of babies. Cecil Jacobson is perhaps the most famous. And Netflix’s series Sisters is based on an Australian doctor who impregnated many patients, meaning well. This article in Bustle tells of a few other power-obsessed sperm donors.
False Positive is riddled with, no pun intended, misconceptions, and goes for blatant shockers rather than nuance and subtly. For those of us who are experiencing infertility or are “NPE” – not parent expected – the film is highly disturbing. Stick to Rosemary’s Baby.