Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Babadook

Earlier this year, South Australian author Sean Williams posted the trailer to an up-and-coming independent horror excursion called The Babadook. To say my interest piqued immediately was an understatement (not only because filming locations were local), but because the trailer displayed something genuinely unique: a dark, domestic outing rooted in suburbia and spliced with an almost cavalcade feel. Within the first few moments I was under the impression The Babadook might be a ‘footage’ film – if only because what I saw on screen felt so genuine and raw. Several moments later I realized the error, having been momentarily fooled because I was observing real, stylized performances that cut to the bone. Cobble this with an effective score (and a storyline somewhat evocative of literary dark fiction), and you have a film showcasing potential success.

But The Babadook is more than just a success; it’s a triumph of independent film-making.

Shot in Adelaide, Amelia is a widow and single parent raising Samuel – an eccentric, somewhat hyperactive child who’s inability to fit in at school (as well as acclimatize to his own family), is making simple day to day living a chore. Losing her husband in a car accident – a calamity taking place on the drive to give birth to Samuel – has given rise to an existence of alienation and despair. Especially on Samuel’s birthday. Though it’s a challenging relationship, the two still share a close affinity, and Amelia’s attempts to pacify her son’s worsening dreams lead to a nightly story hour of classic fiction: fables from old where the monster is always banished. These are fears that have trickled into the day, and Samuel has taken to designing makeshift wooden weapons in a personal battle with the unseen. Among the books at Amelia’s disposal is one she cannot remember purchasing ... The Babadook – a macabre, beautifully illustrated fairy-tale featuring gaudy pop-ups and sinister rhymes. Once read aloud, the cadence acts as a summons to something beyond the veil.

What shines in The Babadook is not so much the story; it’s not even the more frightening moments. No, what works here are the subtle things employed: the sepia-toned suburbia, the stark performances. Child actor Noah Wiseman is a revelation, displaying sympathy and aversion in equal measure. Our mother and child relationship is rife with magnetism and feels completely genuine. Small, memorable cameo’s appear (most notably Daniel Hershall who played John Bunting in Snowtown), whose presence is concrete despite the brevity of screen time. And lurking behind it all is the domestic component: an absent father looming over proceedings like the dark spirit of the Babadook itself.

Make no mistake, though: this is a film intended to disturb, and those key scenes designed for this (even for individuals schooled in the genre), can be genuinely unnerving. An original creation at times cartoonish, and at times malign, the Babadook reaches from beyond the fabric of another reality to slowly engulf and possess. To get the message across, writer and director Jennifer Kent has employed slick camera work and effective compositing to create an atmosphere where our fears – in this case the dread of a family torn asunder – are duly amplified in a process that goes far beyond the limits of resources at hand. Touching, gritty, and starkly relevant, The Babadook is slow burn horror at its absolute finest.

Monday, May 12, 2014


For those familiar with what I look for in the dark cinematic excursion, appraising Creep should come as no surprise. Independent and off the cuff, with a soupcon of sophistication; the kind of film dalliance where passion and ingenuity often takes over from budget constraints or any noticeable studio interference. Released a decade ago and with little fanfare, Creep showcases the talent of then-burgeoning UK director Christopher Smith: the man behind such accomplished efforts as Triangle (2009) and Black Death (2010).   

Through a small epilogue involving sewer-workers, Smith kindly introduces the territory: the London underground ... a dank tunnel-world of labyrinthine train tubes, the human homeless, and sewer cesspools. In short, the perfect stage for calamity. Soon after, we attend a party with young German Kate (Franka Potente – Run Lola Run), who has it on good authority that George Clooney is at a popular club nearby. Though planning to attend with a friend, Kate abandons the party solo ... and subsequently falls asleep en route on a London train platform. Waking up alone – and now imprisoned – Kate is slowly initiated to the denizens of the tube-world and must stay alive until morning.

From first impressions of the poster, one might get the notion this is similar in vein to The Midnight Meat Train ... but this is a different, somewhat domestic animal compared to that romp. The antagonist, when it presents itself, is not quite the monster you expect – and for key moments during the build-up you’ll be trying to decide whether this is slasher territory or if Kate is running the gauntlet of the fantastique. After the human threats are dispatched, a killer finally steps into the limelight, a species of human troglophile cannibalistic in nature. Temporarily captured, Kate is put ‘on ice’ until her deformed attacker decides to return ... and it’s here she teams up with another victim to be granted small insights into a genuinely creepy hermit who has a history all of his own. 

Though this review more or less falls under the auspices of ‘Retrospective’ Creep still stands up today as an effective gore-fest with some original content for its time. While it lacks a cohesive plot (and features a heroine that will jangle your nerves with unrealistic dialogue), the director has made the main focus here claustrophobic tension with an aside of unforgettable splatter. Most of all, you are witnessing the early stages of a gifted filmmaker honing his skills in a distinctive setting that’s ideal for the genre.  

Friday, May 2, 2014

Devil's Due

Everywhere we look nowadays a ‘footage’ film is being churned out somewhere. Whether you love or hate this distinct sub-genre (shaky camera work and naturalistic acting) – it matters little in today’s climate, because they are certainly here to stay. Not only are such films inexpensive, they consistently make a truck load of money. While some skate the fringes of accomplished viewing (REC), others fall so far below the paradigm of what constitutes effective film-making they should be regulated to the annals of direct-to-video cannon in perpetuity. When it was announced a while back that a ‘found footage take’ on
Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen was in the offing (and that director's from a segment of the film VHS had been acquired for helming duties), one could almost envision the end result without viewing a single frame.

Recently married young Americans Samantha and Zach McCall are going on a honeymoon. Their destination: the Dominican Republic. One night, after getting waylaid returning back to their motel, an assertive cab driver seduces them into trying out an underground bar ... one presumably not located on any map. After experiencing this somewhat taboo club, the footage then shifts to jerky scenes evocative of dark worship; the chanting and supplications of a cult satanic in nature. The next morning (and with no memory of the jaunt back), both Samantha and Zach fly home to the United States. Not long after – despite being religious about birth control - Samantha falls pregnant. And thus begins a lackluster and derivative premise.

What follows is everything you would expect when giving birth to Satan: Samantha experiences nosebleeds, fugue states, and a burgeoning disdain for her new hubby. Previously a vegetarian, raw meat is abruptly on the agenda. (Even the variety consumed in public supermarkets). On the street outside the McCall’s home, sinister and shady character's make a habit of loitering about. Though the territory here is well mapped, there are (of course) small and quiet moments of merit. In this found footage era, jump scares are ubiquitous, and the viewer will find an occasional one that works. What doesn’t work is mining the techniques of others, even going so far as to mimic recent outings like Chronicle. In this regard, the makers have turned homage into a banal science.  

Other virtues? There aren’t many ... though our lead actor (Allison Miller) does a more than competent job with what’s on offer, eliciting creepy stares spliced with her genuine girl-next-door persona. Another positive would be the film’s overall modernity: mainstream releases in 2014 are all going to have a polished sheen, regardless of budget constraints. And, toward the climax, there are more than a few effective effects. 

But sadly these aren’t enough to atone for Devil’s Due overall blandness: eight-nine minutes of home video that is (at times) insipid viewing for all.