Ethan Cutkosky in 'The Unborn' (Peter Iovino/Rogue Pictures)

Any movie that begins with a dog wearing a human mask is in serious trouble. If it wants to use that kind of dream snippet as a launch pad for exploring a demented and increasingly bizarre world, if it wants to embrace a loony aesthetic and milk it for all it's worth, wonderful. Deliver a solid, jolting, dazzling, surprising thriller, and all will be forgiven.

On the other hand, if it desperately wants to be taken seriously, if it proceeds in a very measured and sober manner, if it becomes increasingly sedate as it calmly plods through tedious exposition, then you have a mess on your hands.

The Unborn looks like a ghost story, feels like a ghost story, and kinda sounds like a ghost story, but it's dead on arrival. Because writer/director David S. Goyer has been associated with a host of projects with which I have a natural affinity, I was cautiously optimistic that his fourth directorial outing (after ZigZag, Blade: Trinity, and The Invisible) might reflect more of the pulpy, noirish mood and momentum that are evident in some of the best scripts for which he's been credited in part or in whole (Dark City, Blade II, Batman Begins).

Instead, all the juice has been drained from The Unborn. Not even the sight of the lovely, lean and fit Odette Yustman, whose last name became Yowza! when the trailer and pics first hit the net, can salvage the film from mediocrity.

The Unborn is not entirely without merit. James Hawkinson's cinematography looks splendid, though it errs a bit on the safe side of lighting. Otherwise, it's a wash. The Chicago locations are used so sparingly that the exterior settings become anonymous. Speaking of colorless backgrounds, Ramin Djawadi's original score noodles rather than excites, fading away into the ether rather than add any flavoring.

That's typical of the performances as well. Yustman is an appealing presence, but she's unable to transcend the limitations of the script, which calls for her to convey the emotions of someone frightened out of her wits by forces beyond her control -- and then vanquish a demonic presence with constantly shifting, confusing motivations. Whenever an actor asks, "What's my motivation?", I'm sure they never relish being told: "You don't want to die, because then the audience wouldn't have anyone to root for."

Cam Gigandet plays her hunky boyfriend without any distinction, and the same could be said of seasoned professionals Gary Oldman, Jane Alexander, and Idris Elba, which is a much bigger disappointment. I was anticipating much more from that particular trio, but they all look like they're sleepwalking through their roles. Meagan Good turns out to be the sole exception, exuding her usual lively presence as the tart-tongued best friend, single-handedly saving several scenes thanks to her wisecracking delivery.

James Remar and Carla Gugino are wasted in tiny cameos. Remar's brief appearance on screen is particularly baffling, since he plays Yustman's father, and she's still living at home! He disappears unaccountably after two 'blink and you'll miss it' scenes, which leads us back to the story, such as it is.

Predictable plot devices and narrative twists are part and parcel of any ghost story. Rather than breed contempt, familiarity with genre stereotypes can build anticipation: we know what's coming up, and we're hoping that the filmmaker will upend our expectations in some delicous, unexpected way. Good genre filmmakers pay homage to what has gone before, and then add their own special ingredient to the mix to produce something new and different.

Goyer certainly knows his genre precedents. Opening with a weird, foreboding dream sequence? Check. Introduce a dreamy-looking but non-believing supernatural doubter? Check. Feature a creepy-looking, whispering child with unnerving eyes? Check. Eye trauma? Check. Scary twins? Check. Tricycle? Check. Somewhat obscure spirit creature? Check. Using mirrors for a jump scare? Check. Breaking glass? Check. Nice-looking babe with long legs walking around in her panties? Check.

On and on it goes. (Boy, does Mr. Goyer know his precedents.) These are fine in and of themselves; in fact, it's kind of fun to play 'spot the reference.' Yet the references never coalesce into something new or different, and Goyer never sheds any new light or brings any unique perspective to his ghost story. Neither is suspense created or tension generated; one scene replaces the next, and the running time begins to feel interminable.

Without any distractions -- like memorable characters, stirring dramatic conflicts, or even cheap thrills -- we're obligated to note the yawning holes in the plot and perplexing gaps in logic. Why, indeed, does the father disappear? What makes our heroine such a compelling figure for the evil spirit to attack? And why isn't anyone eating any deep-dish pizza? They're in Chicago, for Pete's sake!

What makes The Unborn such a frustrating experience is that Goyer's premise has potential. And, plucked from their surroundings, isolated images and scenes have the power to unsettle. If only the movie delivered on its promise, The Unborn could have been a rocking good time, a stylish modern ghost story, a parable for troubled times, a dark religious allegory.

But then it would be a different movie entirely. As it is, it's simply a disappointing way to begin the year.