The Babadook (2014)

2015 #170
Jennifer Kent | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & Canada / English | 15

Essie Davis is best known for playing the sassy title role in popular Australian Christie-esque TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (for now — she’s in Game of Thrones next year), but here goes completely against type as single mother Amelia, who has to battle not only the stress of her awkward child, but also a strange storybook that may contain some kind of monster… but that would be silly… wouldn’t it?

Perhaps it’s best to not say too much about what’s going on with all that, because the film does a fantastic job blurring the lines between reality and dreams, facts and imaginings, whether it’s all happening or is all in Amelia’s head. For the majority of the film you’ll wonder: is this real? Is she being pranked? By who? A stalker? Her kid? Is she going insane and imagining it all? Sure, it’s a horror movie, so you’re thinking it’s real, but that’s what twists are for — the scares may be real, doesn’t mean the monster is.

And the scares are very real indeed. Not simplistic jump scares, but a festering tension that occasionally bursts forth in moments of specific terror. That doesn’t work for… a certain kind of viewer (to put it politely), but, for me, it makes the film far more genuinely scary, and memorably so, than being made to jump out of my seat a couple of times. Some have also criticised The Babadook for not being 100% original. Well, what is after a century of moviemaking and millennia of storytelling? What it does do is rearrange the familiar in new and terrifying ways, and tap into seams of fear that are harder to access and consequently too rarely touched by horror films. In that regard, the film it most reminded me of was The Shininga horror film for people who think about what they’re watching, rather than just waiting for something to be thrown at the screen to make them jump. The slow burn tension will bore those content with the latter, who I suspect don’t tend to think a great deal (for one thing, they’d spot most of the jumps coming if they did).

Underpinning this is an incredible performance by Essie Davis. If this were merely a drama about a single mother coping with grief, rather than a genre movie, I’m sure she’d’ve been being rewarded all over the place. Again, I guess this turns off the ‘gorehound’ cadre of horror fans, but it’s the combined strength of the writing (by director Jennifer Kent) and Davis’ performance that mean the entire film is interpretable as a drama about grief and mental illness, rather than about an attacking monster or demonic possession or whatever else it might seem is going on (trying to avoid spoiling it again there!) For more on that, see this interpretation, for instance (bearing in mind it’s obviously spoilersome).

Although it’s Davis’ film, Noah Wiseman gives an accomplished performance as her kid. Well, maybe he’s too young to call it “accomplished”, I don’t know, but it must’ve been a difficult role to play — it calls for him to be a sweet little boy one minute, and a nightmare demon-child (in the real-world rather than horror-movie sense!) the next. He starts off immensely irritating — you can see why no one in the film likes him! — but he does grow on you. The next best performance is, of course, by their very cute little dog. (Do not watch this movie just because of the dog. Seriously.)

There is little in The Babadook that will make you jump, and even less that will make your stomach turn in disgust, but that’s absolutely fine. What it will do is chill your blood, make your hair stand on end, make you worry about every little creak or thump you hear elsewhere in the house after dark, and make you want to sleep with the lights on. Not just the bedroom lights, all the lights. Because once you’ve seen it, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

You’re Next (2011)

2015 #172
Adam Wingard | 91 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

From the makers of The Guest, a horror-thriller that’s really a dark comedy.

Murderous home invaders get a surprise when one of their targets is a secret badass. She’s cool; everyone else is thinly sketched. I’d’ve liked more character development; some viewers think it’s already too slow getting to ‘the good stuff’. That’s very violent, but imaginative and funny — the lead villain suffers an exceptionally inventive amusing demise.

You’re Next isn’t all it could be, but is pretty fun. My score errs towards generosity — those with no taste for horror, or laughs derived from murder methods, will like it less.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Shivers (1975)

2015 #116
David Cronenberg | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | Canada / English | 18 / R

The first commercial (i.e. non-student) feature by horror maestro-to-be David Cronenberg, Shivers depicts the sexually-charged chaos that erupts after the spread of a man-made sexually-transmitted parasite in an isolated hyper-modern tower block.

The film contains all the requisite titillation of cheap schlock (nudity! gore!), but a handful of interesting, potential-laden ideas indicate the filmmaking promise that Cronenberg would later fulfil. Unfortunately, the execution here is hindered by dirt cheap production values and unfocused, undisciplined storytelling.

The most horrific part for fans is the mere mention of a sometimes-mooted remake, but I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad idea.

2 out of 5

American Movie (1999)

2014 #73
Chris Smith | 100 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R

American MovieA behind-the-scenes making-of with a difference, American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (to give its full title) is a documentary about wannabe-filmmaker Mark Borchardt attempting to produce a horror feature film with little more than some mates and good intentions, battling against a lack of money, interest, and dedication. It descends, quickly, into the kind of farcicality that leads some to assume it’s a This is Spinal Tap-style spoof. But it isn’t. It’s real.

It’s hard to know if you should laugh at it all, in fact. These are individuals whose lives are so quietly, subtly absurd that you can genuinely think they’ve been scripted or improvised by comedians — it’s funny, yes, but it’s also kind of sad. It’s a combination that could make for uncomfortable viewing, but for some reason it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the boundless optimism that Mark has; the belief that what he’s doing is worth pursuing and that it’s going to work out. Perhaps that’s less optimism and more naïvety.

I imagine this is actually a story that’s repeated regularly all around America — heck, all around the world: people who’d love to be filmmakers, trying to realise their dream, without really knowing what they’re doing. Hopefully not all those stories are as amusing and lightly-crazed as this one, but the vast majority will be just as unsuccessful. Whether there’s a lesson to take away from that, and what that lesson is, I’m not sure. “Don’t bother,” perhaps (to be pessimistic about it!)

Filming filmingWhatever you take away from it, American Movie feels like a must-see for certain sections of film fandom, particularly anyone who wants to make a movie themselves. Its appeal is broader than that though, an everyday story of adversity that isn’t so much overcome as temporarily averted. It’s not bleak or sad, but it is melancholic. And, whatever the morals of it, often laugh-out-loud funny.

Rarely seen (I hadn’t even heard of it until Film4 bunged on a late-night screening once last year), I recommend catching it if you can.

4 out of 5

Nosferatu (1922)

aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens / Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Nosferatu2007 #18
F.W. Murnau | 81 mins | DVD | PG

One of the earliest and most-referenced horror films, and the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (faithfully, albeit unofficially).

With such a weight bearing down upon it I found it quite hard to watch it objectively, and so was mainly left with the sense that I didn’t enjoy it as much as Sunrise and that I’d rather like to see a fully restored version. Perhaps Masters of Cinema shall treat us to one soon.*

Whatever one’s thoughts on it, it really is a must see for anyone into sci-fi/fantasy, horror, or (again) the history of film.

3 out of 5

* In the years since this review was written, they have. ^