In grade school gym class it doesn’t really matter much how good you actually are at anything. The coach doesn’t care whether you can do three push-ups or thirty, just as long as you try, as long as he can see some effort. Most of the horror flicks in theaters in the last couple of years would completely fail elementary school gym. They just don’t even try; all you see over and over are the same lame-ass shots and gimmicks that hacky horror filmmakers have been stealing from each other for years. Lately it’s been the reuse of J-horror cliches that has plagued so many of the lame horror films to come out, and those gimmicks, especially the creepy-looking pale kid menacing the camera, are all over the trailers for The Unborn. But The Unborn, to my great surprise, manages to set itself apart from the morass of dull Asian horror remakes it feels like it has climbed out of.

The movie opens with a dream sequence in which the Odette Yustman, playing our heroine, encounters our friend the creepy J-horror kid followed by a truly unsettling confrontation with dog in a mask and the discovery of an effectively graphic fetus buried in the woods. The scene works, but it encapsulates the rest of the film in that it feels unsure of itself: the dog and the fetus are very well done and pretty frightening, and the kid is like a tacked on concession to the current standard bearers of the genre, as though writer and director David S. Goyer didn’t feel quite confident enough that his own ideas would do the trick. It’s a decent movie, but the whole way through it feels like what could have been a much better movie is left lying beneath the weight of the tacked-on cliches, and that’s too bad because Goyer really does have a talent for coming up with some good scary ideas.

Yustman goes on to discover that she had a twin who died in utero, hence the fetus imagery, and after further investigation that leads her to a Holocaust survivor and Gary Oldman as a rabbi she finds out that her twin had been posessed and that the spirit that was trying to enter the world through him would now like to do the same through her. Her problems can be traced back to Nazi experiments on twins, and this element of the film turned out to be one of my favorites. Not only was the use of Nazi medical experiments as a catalyst for the horrors of the film unexpected, original, and genuinely creepy, I was surprised and impressed that this ghost story, unlike most recent ones, actually bothered to explain where the ghost came from.

These discoveries lead to an exorcism performed by Oldman and Idris Elba as Oldman’s Christian counterpart and a sufficiently satisfying climax that features some decent action and very well-done makeup effects, though while the ending of the movie has a pretty good if a little obvious horror-movie twist it does feel like it drags a bit lengthwise.

The design of the various creatures in the film is first rate, and most of them have an added heft of realism because Goyer had the good sense to create them practically instead of resorting to CGI, which tends to rob such horrors of their immediacy and therefore much of what makes them frightening. It’s just a lot more effective to see a person and a monster occupying the same physical space than it is to see a person screaming at emptiness that would only later be filled with something grotesque, and it seems to pull better performances out of actors when they can actually see what they’re supposed to be afraid of.

As they go in horror flicks, most of those performances are not bad. Yustman is more convincing than most of the female leads have been in recent horror movies, though parts of the movie are bogged down by the nice to look at but entirely flat Megan Good as Yustman’s best friend and low-rent James Franco impersonator Cam Gigandet as her boyfriend. Idris Elba does good work with the little screen time that he gets, and if you didn’t know that Gary Oldman would be great you haven’t seen very many Gary Oldman movies.

After watching The Unborn, I get the feeling that David Goyer has some great ideas and could have a really good horror movie in him if he develops enough confidence in his own ideas to leave behind all of the overused J-horror elements that stifle his film in places. But Goyer is one of the kids who really does try in gym class, and I have every hope in the world that soon he can become one of the ones who wins, too.