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Two movies have opened lately that fall into the horror genre and have much in common. They both have female central characters and both have been directed by women. They are both first features, filmed on a low budget, show a formidable amount of talent and have more style than a Coco Chanel fashion shoot.
And though I’m not quite convinced that either really rise above what they are, they have so much going for them that I think both are more than worth the look.
In The Babadook from Australia, written and directed by Jennifer Kent (based on a short film of hers called Monster), a pregnant woman, Amelia, loses her husband in a car crash as he is taking her to the hospital to deliver their child. Six years later, Amelia is a single, working mom trying to raise her only son.
But something is wrong. Said son Samuel can’t sleep at night for fear of monsters under the bed and in the closet. This means Amelia is not getting any sleep and is having more and more trouble holding it all together.
In addition, Samuel is showing signs of being a sociopath as he constructs homemade weapons to fight off the monsters, taking them to school, scaring his fellow classmates, none of whom he really gets along with. After Samuel’s teacher and principal recommend having him taught by an expert in the field of children with developmental problems, Amelia removes him from the school, which only increases the stress at home.
And then things get really bad.
One night, Samuel is given the choice of what bedtime story he wants read him and he chooses a pop-up called The Babadook (which is an anagram of “a bad book”), about a monster who enters a household after he knocks and is let in. Amelia has never seen the book before and doesn’t know where it came from, but she starts to read it, stopping just as it becomes far too gruesome.
But as you probably expect, one night there comes that knock and sure enough, Amelia opens the door. There’s nothing there (or is there?), but it’s too late, the damage has been done.
The Babadook is an incredible film to look at, filled as it is with odd angles, sudden jump cuts and surrealistic images, my favorite being one of Amelia falling slowly onto a bed. The film has been storyboarded within an inch of its life and the editing and camera placement is brilliant. Everybody behind the scenes knows exactly what to do to build suspense, raise tension, and then scare the bejebus out of you.
I mean, it’s often truly frightening and I’m not joking. Believe me when I say, The Babadook is one effing scary movie at times.
Still, in many ways, that’s about all it is by the time it’s over and done with.
It’s not that it’s not trying to be more. There is some suggestion that the whole thing is supposed to be a metaphor on the difficulty of a single mother going it alone, that the babadook arises out of her neurotic inability to multitask.
But the connection seems a bit too tenuous to me mainly in that there is no explanation as to why these events are happening now, so many years after the death of the husband. Why is she unable to cope just at this time? In fact, one might make the case that the story begins in the middle of act one without enough of a context to understand Amelia’s problems or why they would summon a monstrous creature.
And because the story may be opening a little late in the proceedings, the early scenes may seem too much like a red herring. It begins in many ways as does We Need To Talk About Kevin, a film about a mother trying to deal with a child who is obviously mentally unwell. Here, the first impression one gets of Samuel, played very effectively by Noah Wiseman, with eyes out of a painting by Margaret Keane (or Walter Kean, whichever one you believe), is of someone who would be perfect for yet another Omen reboot.
One is lead to believe that it is something inherent in the child that is summoning the babadook. But by the time the story is over, he’s actually revealed to be as normal as any six year old (snide comments allowed here), that there really isn’t anything wrong with him, and that it’s more the mother’s neurosis that is the root of the problem.
In addition, there don’t seem to be any real rules to the game. The Babadook is pretty indestructible as Kent has created it and there’s no hint or suggestion as to how Amelia and Samuel can defeat this demon. Which means that the second half sort of slows a bit as it tries to figure out where to go.
And then, suddenly, Amelia does…defeat it, I mean, after a long dark night of the soul battle. But in a way such that the victory sort of seemed a bit too arbitrary (she kind of gets ahold of her neuroses and refuses to let them control her, I think) and in a way that didn’t really feel all that convincing.
At the same time, I do have to admit that Kent does a very good job of, once being painted into a corner, fooling the audience into thinking that she has found a way out.
But I think the way out is more style than substance. And though style is something one doesn’t want to sneeze at (a ton of first time filmmakers seem rather short of it lately), it’s also not quite as satisfactory as one might wish.
Because of this, the story often feels made up as it goes along. For example, there are other red herrings, like a tooth that is causing Amelia problems, and a visit by an erstwhile suitor that feels like the second half of the scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
So by the time the whole thing is over, The Babadook may not really be much more than a well made jump and go boo movie, though, to its credit, an extremely well made jump and go boo movie.
With Essie Davis, best known over here probably for her roles in the Matrix sequels and as the amateur sleuth Miss Fisher, giving a very strong performance as Amelia, and adorable baby face Daniel Henshall, the psychotic killer from The Snowtown Murders, as the erstwhile suitor.
The excellent editing is by Simon Njoo.
At the same time, the whole thing was filmed in Bakersfield and Taft, California.
Yes, that’s right. So deal with it.
And in addition, except for the signs being written in Farsi, Amirpour doesn’t seem to even try to disguise the location as being anywhere but local. Everything about it, from the constantly dunking oil derricks to the American architecture, screams California dreaming.
Which, actually, I think is pretty neat. I mean, if moviemaking gives you limitations, then make lemonade out of them.
The story revolves around one Arash, a young man who dresses like James Dean and whose most prized possession is his sports car (which is understandable since it is one fabulous vehicle, let me tell you). His father is a drug addict, addicted to prostitutes and gambles, which means he owes money to local drug dealer/pimp Saeed. So Saeed takes Arash’s car in payment.
As Arash tries to find a way to get his car back, he runs across a mysterious young woman who, as the title suggests, walks home alone at night.
The result is your typical boy meets vampire, boy doesn’t know if he wants vampire, boy gets vampire.
Like The Babadook, A Girl Walks… is very stylish. It’s shot in 1940’s film noir black and white and has more mood than one can shake a fang at. There is something about the sparseness of it, the minimalist approach to the look that gives the movie much of its interest.
At the same time, it may be more mood than story. The plotline at times, especially in the second half, feels a bit vague and unformed. There is a story here, but it may not quite have enough tension or forward momentum to be as effective as one might like.
And like The Babadook, it may feel a bit made up as it goes along, as well as also starting in the middle of act one with this mysterious woman walking the streets, just suddenly there, out of nowhere. No one has ever seen her before (and judging by how many people one ever sees in the movie, you’d think someone would notice a stranger in their midst), but no one seems all that curious about her either.
But the story does come together in a satisfactory way with Arash having to make a difficult decision. It’s actually kind of a sweet ending, when you think about it.
It’s not quite Let the Right One In or Near Dark, but to its credit, it’s definitely no Twilight.
With Arash Mrandi as Arash (kind of convenient there); Sheila Van (of Argo) as the girl; and Dominc Rains (of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Saeed.
Lyle Vincent provided the black and white cinematography.
The movie’s tagline is: The first Iranian Vampire Western. Take that Ali Khamenei.