You could be forgiven for thinking that suspenseful horror films are a fading presence on our screens. Many contemporary horror filmmakers try to instantly gratify audiences by making them jump in their seats. Shock moments onscreen and computer-generated gore are valued over a cleverly-written screenplay.
In this fickle genre, the recently released Jennifer Kent-directed Australian film The Babadook offers hope and reminds us that classic suspense is still alive.
Before turning her hand to directing, Kent worked as an actor after graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney. Loosely based on her short film Monster (2005), The Babadook is her feature directorial debut. It was shot over seven weeks in Adelaide on a modest budget estimated at $2.3 million, around $30,000 of which was crowd-sourced via an online Kickstarter campaign.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year and is currently screening in art cinemas around the country, with an international theatrical release in the UK slated for October. An article on Indiewire touted it as “an increasingly rare breed that should be championed.”
The film is about a recently widowed mother (Essie Davis) and her son (Noah Wiseman) who lives in a quiet, mundane town. She finds a neglected storybook collecting dust on one of her shelves to read to her son one night. The dark tale tells of a mysterious creature that visits its victims at night, hiding in the closet and warning of its arrival with “three sharp knocks”. The audience watch as the line between fiction and reality is blurred and the creature torments the family in real life.
The creature is as dishevelled and frightening as it appears in the book, despite the audience only catching glimpses of it onscreen, hidden in the shadows. It looks for a ‘host’ in Davis’ character who begins to slowly become erratic and paranoid before becoming possessed by the Babadook. This leads to one of the most emotionally–charged final sequences in recent years, involving a stand-off between Davis, who is clinging to her son and her sanity, and the creature.
The power in suspense films of old is in this slow-burn technique. In Roman Polanski’s sinister Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Mia Farrow plays an expectant mother who has just moved into a new apartment block. While her neighbours appear ominous in the film, their malevolent intentions aren’t revealed until the final sequence.
Similarly, the plot devices in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) don’t fall into place until the final, climactic scene. Throughout the film viewers are kept as baffled as the lead character (Donald Sutherland) every time he has an unsettling vision of his deceased daughter wandering around the darkened alleyways of Venice.
In The Babadook Kent holds all of her cards only to reveal them slowly, one by one to the audience. Her film sits among other recent works by genre purists, including Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2012). They show how the classic tools of suspense can single themselves out in a movie market saturated in uncreative horror.
Davis’ performance in the film is remarkable. She shifts from a concerned, grieving mother one moment to a creepy, possessed figure the next. In the dark cinema, audiences are kept guessing. Despite minor characters drifting in and out of the narrative, Davis and Wiseman are the focus. Their bond takes centre stage, and is tested when the Babadook targets them as prey.
Kent’s shots linger on Davis and Wiseman even when they aren’t talking, and this ‘dead time’ forces an undercurrent of tension into the narrative. The lighting is bleak and drained of vibrancy. The unnamed small-town the film is set in is bare and non-specific, as are all the sets. It is as though she intended to keep from marking her story with a specific timestamp, creating a timeless narrative instead. This style is what distances it from the horror films being released today.
It may seem as though Hollywood studios have exhausted every remake of 1980s teen-slasher films, yet there is still a fresh batch every year, and they dominate the industry, leaving smart, original horror by the wayside. Think the cringe-worthy Carrie (2013) remake, in which audiences were expected to buy Chloe Grace Moretz as the socially awkward title character that Sissy Spacek perfected in the 1976 original. Or A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010), in which classic villian Freddy Krueger, who was brought to life in the terrifying 1984 original film, is rendered significantly less intimidating as a result of CGI effects. The main differences between these new films and their predecessors are an increased body count and gratuitous cameo appearances – why director Ronny Yu of Freddy vs. Jason (2003) hired singer Kelly Rowland is a question that may never be answered.
Suspenseful horror provides more than fodder for entertainment. An auteur like Alfred Hitchcock, with classics like Rope (1948), Dial M For Murder (1954), and Psycho (1960) to his name, perfected the art of the genre. He drew audiences into his narratives without giving anything away until the film’s final breath. The stories often mislead the audience, and gradually unravel before the truth is finally revealed at the end.
In Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), James Stewart plays Scottie, a former detective with a fear of heights. Throughout the film Scottie believes that Madeleine, played by Kim Novak, has committed suicide, leaving him wracked with guilt. It isn’t until the film’s final sequence, with the startling revelation that her suicide was in fact an elaborately staged murder, that both Scottie and the audience realise they’ve been deceived the entire time. Audience expectations are defied by the director in order to maintain the suspense.
The genre requires a level of film literacy. Kent’s film flows with references to old suspense films, paying homage to many revered classics. These moments are intended for those who are familiar with the earlier works, but also make clear the importance this kind of filmmaking has for the future of quality modern horror and suspense.
There’s a scene in which Davis’ character and her son are huddled on a bed that is shaking violently, reminiscent of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), a film heralded by many as one of the greatest films in the genre. References to this film are also found in a scene involving the Babadook leaving Davis’ body. Themes of possession and expulsion in Kent’s film bear a striking resemblance to those in Friedkin’s.
When Wiseman’s character is clinging onto his mother’s hands, nearly sucked into the darkness by the Babadook, one can’t help but draw a link between this and a similar moment in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). Kent draws on these archetypes to prove there’s still life left in a tradition many fear had died.
The Babadook has given both quality Australian filmmaking and the art of making a classic, suspenseful horror a welcoming, international audience.