The Tactile Horror of “The Babadook”

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the babadook …

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I didn’t see a trailer before I went to see this film. I would suggest that you don’t either. It is best taken in as a surprise, and as a whole. None of this renting on Amazon prime and watching it while you surf the ‘net. Find yourself a showing if possible. That also means I don’t want you to continue reading if you’re planning to see it.

I mean it. Scram.

The Babadook is lauded as one of the best horror movies to come out in some time. It’s a classic story with a twist: Amelia is a mother consumed by grief and a troubled son (Samuel). He finds a book that promises a boogeyman will come, the monster arrives, and the two of them must fend it off. This could, in less capable hands, have been a standard film. Things that go bump in the night are a dime a dozen in the horror world, so what makes The Babadook different? In-camera special effects and complex performance.

Director Jennifer Kent was committed to using in-camera effects. That means she eschewed computer graphics (CGI) in favor of puppetry, stop-motion animation, and very good props. This means that for the audience, every part of what you see on screen is something that could happen. There could be a pop-up book like “The Babadook” in your life. A particularly nasty friend could play tricks on you with puppetry that looks like the babadook. Like I said earlier, this is a monster you could reach out and touch.

And poof – it will become just another coat on the rack. Until it’s ready to manifest again.

Unlike what we are used to seeing these days, The Babadook is a very tactile film. It is shot more like “Oscar-bait,” less like a horror movie. The lighting and set/costume design work together seamlessly to create a battle between light and dark. The way the film is lit, it makes you notice the subtle textures on the screen. It makes you feel like you could reach out and touch it. babadookbook

The Babadook enters the home through a graphic pop-up book, which sets the aesthetic for the rest of the movie. The filmmakers placed emphasis on this prop through sound effects – the first time Amelia reads part of the book to Noah, a high-pitched tone sits just at the background of consciousness. When she closes the book briefly, the tone goes away, but as soon as she opens it it comes back.

The creature itself, much like the illustrations in the book, looks like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration. The long coat and top hat fit in well with horror tropes dating back to the earliest film from the 1800s. In fact, the design and feel of the entire movie revolved around the book. Kent found a young American illustrator to do the work, and designed the film around the book. This further gives it an immersive quality.

Kent cites her primary influences as classic horror, particularly from the 1970s and 80s, but also wanted to bring some elements of very early horror to the work, visually citing Nosferatu and Vampyr. When crafting the effects for the film, Kent said she wanted to mimic the old silent era – she even superimposes images of the Babadook over Georges Melies’ short films, paying tribute to the man she calls “the grandfather of special effects.”Screenshot (1)

These old films relied on puppetry and stop motion. Stop motion animation can be credited to Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, who filmed The Humpty Dumpty Circus in 1897. Georges Melies and other early filmmakers drew heavily fromexperience in the theatre, and their effects seemed magic. Looking back, many of these early films have the feeling of a pop-up book, and the effects in The Babadook feel like they come directly out of the book Noah finds. The stop motion effects and puppetry are essential to creating the feeling of complete immersion in the world.

The effects used to create the monster also serve to increase suspense as you move through the film. The trick to creating a satisfying climax is to keep suspense through the film, and escalate the sense of danger. The first time you see the babadook, it’s in a book. The second time, it is a curious collection of clothes assembled against a wall. As the film progresses and the mother denies the babadook, it does indeed become stronger – it moves from being a coat on a rack, to sounds in the night, to a puppet, a monster that crawls on the ceiling, and ultimately possessing Amelia. In the final scene, as Amelia goes in to the basement to feed the monster, you don’t even get to see it – it has lost its physical, in-camera power.

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This aesthetic would not be the same if she had crafted a monster using CGI effects. CGI horror relies on jump scares and crafting the perfect monster – and often, these don’t build the deep psychological horror that comes from seeing our darkest selves on screen. Often, people are more terrified of what they see in the mind’s eye – a detailed demon crafted from CGI may frighten you once, but it won’t haunt you.

The tactile effects also serve to amplify the performances of Essie Davis (Amelia – the mother) and Noah Wiseman (Samuel – the troubled son). The filmmakers weren’t worried about how many tentacles came out of the babadook’s overcoat, they were worried about creating a lasting impression of terror.

Davis shows from the beginning of the film her character’s self-doubt, hatred, and confusion. She is a terminally exhausted mother, doing her best to raise her son through her grief. She is constantly pushing Sam away from her, at the same time that she tends to him in obligation. It almost comes as a relief later in the movie when she snaps and starts to yell back at him. As time progresses, and Amelia becomes more possessed by the babadook, she also finds strength. Once she exorcises the babadook away from possessing her, she is able to keep some of the strength she gained from the experience to banish it.

Finally, Kent’s masterpiece demonstrates an unprecedented knowledge of classic horror. Not only does she reference classic horror aesthetically, but she turns the tropes on their head. The babadook is ultimately a boogeyman. In all the classic folklore, the boogeyman comes for the child and leaves, whereas the babadook moves in. Kent reverses the trope of the weak woman who crumbles in the face of terror. In some ways, The Babadook is an interesting counterpoint to Rosemary’s Baby. Where Rosemary shrinks and loses control of her world, ultimately trapped by the baby and the witches, Amelia becomes stronger and ultimately conquers her demon. She can move more freely in the world, as long as she keeps the Babadook in the basement. It’s an obvious metaphor for any of us dealing with trauma: it never leaves, but you can conquer it.

Good horror is born out of our worst, most personal fears. The Babadook feeds off of emotions we aren’t allowed to talk about in society. Everyone wants to believe that motherhood means unconditional love – but what about your deepest nightmares that your loved ones don’t really love you? What happens when it gets hard – when resentment overpowers a mother? And how can you live with yourself when it happens to you? Kent keeps these themes close, strangles you with them, and dares you to breathe a sigh of relief.

I, for one, am very excited to see where she goes next. If you would like a taste of the babadook, but don’t know if you can commit to the full thing, check out Kent’s short film Monster.

check out the official website here

Interviews with Kent:

Empire Online

SBS

Den of Geek

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On the Women of “Selma”

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On this Martin Luther King Day, many Americans are talking about the film “Selma.”  Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece chronicles the three months of escalating tactics in Selma, Alabama to push for voting rights for African Americans.  This was a difficult film to make, and it was exquisitely done.  DuVernay was even able to include some of the women of the movement – though the film still places men at the center.

I don’t fault DuVernay for the way the women are treated in the film.  I know that there hasn’t even been much in film that includes Martin Luther King Jr. as a character, and this is the first film to place him as the central character and treat him with complexity.  There’s a lot of ground to cover before the average American viewer is ready to watch a movie centering around the women of the movement.  It’s an achievement to weave them in at all, given the historical narrative.  In fact, according to an interview with Carmen Ejogo (the woman who played Coretta Scott King), none of the female characters were in the original screenplay Paul Webb wrote.  The film left me thirsty for more – which may be exactly what DuVernay intended.

On that note, I should state that this post will focus on the lesser-known women of the Civil Rights movement, those central in history but less so in the script.  Therefore, I won’t be doing a full profile of Coretta Scott King – but it would be a mistake to leave her out of the post entirely.

Coretta Scott King was an outspoken woman often asked to stay quiet – even her husband asked her to play the demure housewife.  As early as 1966, she criticized the lack of recognition of women in the movement.  In an interview with New Lady magazine, she stated:

“Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.”

She continued Dr. King’s legacy of social justice through her efforts to fight poverty, speak out for women’s rights, fight apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, and join her voice to the chorus calling for gay rights.  It is frustrating that, after her death, many eulogies focused on her grace and beauty as Martin Luther King’s wife, rather than her very real contributions to social justice on a global scale.  There’s a fantastic piece about this over at the Washington Post.

I could write an entire post about Coretta Scott King. But for now, I want to focus on the women you may not have heard of yet.

So here it is.  An introduction to the women of “Selma.”

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Diane Nash

Let’s start with Diane Nash, played by Tessa Thompson in the film.  She was a key player in the movement.  Nash was far from new to organizing successful campaigns when she came to Selma.  She grew up in Chicago, and was introduced to Southern-style segregation when she moved to Nashville to study at Fisk University.  She became one of the leaders of the Nashville sit-ins at age 22, and gained the attention of Ella Baker and other civil rights leaders when they won in Nashville.

Baker invited her and a group of other student activists to an assembly in Raleigh, North Carolina.  There, they formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The film did spend some time to focus on the somewhat tense relationship between SNCC and the SCLC, with two local SNCC organizers at odds over whether to join forces with King and the SCLC.  I would love to see the deleted scene where they meet Nash when she comes to town.

After she helped form SNCC, Nash went on to be an organizer of the Freedom Rides.  The Freedom Rides of 1961 went straight into the heart of the south and met violence.  Many were beaten and arrested, but Nash organized and made sure to find replacements and continue the ride.  She feared that if the Freedom Ride ended prematurely, it would set the movement back years.

So when Nash came to Selma in 1965, she was well acquainted with both winning campaigns and Southern violence.  She and her husband James Bevel had been working on black voting rights in Alabama since the bombing of the Birmingham church in 1962.  Nash was central in building an organizing plan in Selma – including the march from Selma to Montgomery, though the lines she’s given in the film are limited.

Nash still lives today, and continues to work as an activist and thinker on nonviolence.

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Coretta and Amelia

Amelia Boynton Robinson had been working for racial justice in Alabama for many years – she first registered to vote in 1934, and fought for the right of others to vote.  She and her late husband had met Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in 1955.  Amelia was a creative woman, and used the arts to help the movement.  She published a musical play about the history of gospel music to help fund a community center in Selma.

After the death of her husband, Samuel Boynton, in 1963, Amelia Robinson Boynton transformed her home into the central office for the Selma civil rights movement.  She was not new to the fight – she had been organizing black voter drives since the 1930s.  In 1964 she became the first African-American woman to run for a seat in Congress.

Needless to say, the civil rights leaders that gathered in Selma in 1965 to plan and execute the march from Selma to Montgomery couldn’t have had a better home base.  Bottom was a rock, though better known as a victim of violence.

She was viciously beaten during Bloody Sunday, and it was the photo of her on the front page that inspired many to come to Selma to join the larger marches that followed.  When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, she was invited to the White House to attend as a guest of honor.  Martin Luther King, Jr. appointed her at many times to speak – including a speech on the steps of the Alabama state capitol to 30,000 people, and an address to the United Nations in the 1960s.

She later went on to be one of the founders of the Schiller Institute.  Ms. Boynton is still alive at age 103.

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Annie Lee Cooper

Finally, we come to Annie Lee Cooper, local Selma hero.  There is little information out there about Ms. Cooper, but she had lived in the north for some years.  She was shocked that she was restricted from registering to vote in Alabama, as she had been registered in both Pennsylvania and Ohio.  She is best known for her physical defiance of Sheriff Jim Clark – in real life, she struck him to the ground after he prodded her with a billy club.

She died in 2010, months after turning 100.  You can read her obituary from the Selma Times Journal here.

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I hope that soon, women like these will be given their due in the history books covering the Civil Rights Movement.  If you have already heard of them, I’m glad.  If you haven’t, this is only the bare minimum of information, and I encourage you to read as much as possible.  To ignore the contributions of women to the movement is to oversimplify the history, and to continue societal oppression of both women and people of color.  Thank you for reading.

To learn more about Ava DuVernay, check out her website: www.avaduvarnay.com

To read a historian’s perspective on the film, check out this post from Gary May.

All photos credited to the official website for the film, www.selmamovie.com.

Why you should watch “Metropolis”

x-posted from Video Word Made Flesh

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Metropolis. It was absolutely essential to the creation of science fiction as a whole. Not only this, but it comes from a deeply stylized artistic genre that only works in silent film, an art lost to film history. Metropolis is considered German Expressionist, a full fledged artistic as well as filmic movement, with heavy symbolism and art-deco set design. The film is carried by the main female character, Maria, played by Brigitte Helm. Maria and her double are the catalysts for the entire film.

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