Truly madly creepy

Aus­tralian writer-di­rec­tor Jen­nifer Kent has cre­ated a truly sin­is­ter slice of cin­ema with her de­but movie ‘The Babadook’. ‘For me, the en­try point was the idea of­fac­ing the un­face­able,’ she tells Tara Brady

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A dis­con­cert­ing-look­ing cloth­bound book em­bla­zoned with the im­age of a shad­owy creature mys­te­ri­ously ap­pears on seven-year-old Sa­muel’s shelf. The trou­bled boy (new­comer Noah Wise­man) hands the tome to his in­creas­ingly fraz­zled, wid­owed mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and de­mands she read aloud the dark nurs­ery rhyme inside: “If it’s in a word or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” So it proves. Amelia is soon ex­hausted by Sa­muel’s re­peated in­sis­tences that she check un­der the bed and inside the wardrobe, lest the Babadook be lurk­ing in the gloom. But maybe, just maybe, her son nis on to some­thing

Hor­ror fans will al­ready know all about The baba-dook

dook. The de­but film Aus­tralian writer-di­rec­tor Jen­nifer Kent went down a storm at the Sundance Film Fes­ti­val ear­lier this year; the ti­tle was snapped up by IFC Mid­night Films and Kent was swiftly signed by Wil­liam Mor­ris En­deav­our The last spook house to re­ceive such a re­cep­tion in Utah was a lit­tle film called The Blair Witch Project.

Kent, a for­mer ac­tress who spent years hon­ing her first screen play, has al­ready turned down a num­ber of big stu­dio of­fers. Fair enough. It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine some­thing as finely crafted and hand­made as The Babadook

The Babadook emerg­ing from the Hol­ly­wood con­veyer belt.

“I’m in­ter­ested in all of­fers,” she in­sists. “But if I’m go­ing to spend three or four years of my life on some­thing, it has to speak to me just a bit.”

Non-genre afi­ciona­dos should also make time for the movie-verse’s new­est mon­ster.

The Babadook is a classy, gor­geous-look­ing film, jol­lied along by com­plex psy­chol­ogy and the kind of per­for­mances and char­ac­ters one might ex­pect from some­one who has worked on the other side of the cam­era. How did Kent’s work act­ing in movies such as Babe: Pig in the City and TV shows such as Coun­try

Prac­tice shape her di­rec­to­rial de­but?

“The main thing I learned from act­ing was that all ac­tors are dif­fer­ent, some think vis­ually, oth­ers think emotionally,” she says “I some­times hear a ay: ‘Oh, that ac­tor hat I tell them’. And I n you’re not do­ing things aren’t workac­tor can act, it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity to fix A new Folfk­lore Clawed, hat­ted and ob-scured by the gloam­ing un­til his freaky stop-mo-tion n en­trance, the Baba-dook looks and feels gen­uinely folk­loric. Even the name sounds like an an­cient thing. “I wanted it to sound kind of an­noy­ing,” says it's cre­ator. “Like gob-blede­gook that a child might make up. It’s

only later that the word starts to take on a more sin­is­ter mean-ing g.” As with the et­y­molo-gy , this an­tipodean bo­gey­man is en­tirely the prod­uct of Jen­nifer Kent’s mar­velous us imag­i­na­tion, with

some as­sis­tance from the pop-up book il­lus­tra­tor Alexan­der Juhasz. Pic­ture Nos­fer­atu by Ed­ward Gorey. Or The Cab­i­net

of Dr Caligari by Tim Bur­ton. Now pic­ture hid­ing un­der the du­vet from now un­til Christ­mas.

“For me, the en­try point was the idea of fac­ing the un­face­able,” says the di­rec­tor. “It’s some­one who can’t face this re­ally dif­fi­cult dark thing in their life. So the Babadook had to re­flect that.”

That dark thing, it tran­spires, springs from moth­er­hood it­self. Amelia, in common with We

Need to Talk About Kevin’s Eva, is hardly ideal mommy ma­te­rial. She strug­gles with cud­dles. Might the Babadook be a man­i­fes­ta­tion of re­frig­er­a­tor ma­ter­nal skills? The movie keeps us guess­ing un­til the fi­nal cred­its.

“It’s still taboo to say that some women strug­gle with moth­er­hood, but they do,” says Kent. “I al­ways con­ceived of the film through Amelia’s eyes. Oc­ca­sion­ally, we switch to Sam’s per­spec­tive. But I wanted peo­ple to feel the de­scent from the inside not the out­side. We’re un­der her skin, not judg­ing from the out­side with our arms folded.”

Amelia’s emo­tional re­move is re­flected in the film’s near-mono­chrome palate: Pol­ish cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ra­doslaw Lad­czuk piles on the murky mauves. The pro­duc­tion de­sign echoes that ef­fect with black cars, black cock­roaches and even black roses lurk­ing in the back­ground.

“I orig­i­nally wanted to shoot the film in black and white – much to my pro­ducer’s hor­ror,” laughs Kent. “In­stead we re­duced the colours but kept the con­trasts of Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ism. So there’s a lot of blues and bur­gundy. There are some greens, but they’re teal greens. It had to look as emotionally cold and un­com­fort­able as pos­si­ble. It was all done in cam­era, not in post-pro­duc­tion. So there were no browns al­lowed on set.”

With a side of peas oup

The Babadook seems des­tined to pull in an au­di­ence who haven’t watched from be­tween their fin­gers since The Con­jur­ing, or pos­si­bly The Sixth Sense. But Kent’s award-win­ning pic­ture also shares DNA with early Ro­man Polan­ski freak-outs, par­tic­u­larly

Re­pul­sion and The Ten­ant. In this spirit, Essie Davis’s in­creas­ingly de­mented per­for­mance moves be­tween ner­vous gib­ber­ing and shriek­ing that ought to come with a side of pea soup.

“There were times when she did lose her voice,” says Kent. “She’s a very ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tress. But we did have to save her scream for when we re­ally needed it.”

Davis has known Kent since col­lege, so the nec­es­sary rap­port and trust had been es­tab­lished long ago. But The

Babadook is a two-han­der, and is just as re­liant on its bril­liant young star Noah Wise­man, who was se­lected from some 400 can­di­dates. I won­der how much the lit­tle chap knew about the film’s more disturbing at­tributes?

“It’s in­ter­est­ing,” says the film-maker. “A lot of direc­tors will try to trick kids or sur­prise them. I took the op­po­site ap­proach. I knew Noah needed to know the story of The Baba

dook. Or at least the G-rated ver­sion. We spent three weeks away be­fore the shoot. His mum is a child psy­chol­o­gist. She was very in favour of dis­clo­sure as well. He be­came as com­mit­ted as any­one else on the team. We did pro­tect him. Any­thing that was in­ap­pro­pri­ate, we had an adult ac­tor come in to cop all the abuse.”

The BabadoR

ok pre­mieres at Hor­rorthon 2014 on Thurs­day, Oc­to­ber 23rd and goes on gen­eral re­lease Oc­to­ber 24th. See ifi.ie/hor­rorthon

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