Category: Horror

The Babadook (Australia 2014)

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!

The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .

I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception?

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception? Note the palette of blues, greys and greens.

It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)

The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.

I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.

Soulmate (UK 2013)

Soulmate1web

This is debut feature for director Axelle Carolyn. It has elements of the horror genre as well. Axelle Carolyn writes: “I love horror movies…I’d be happy to work in horror for the rest of my days.”

The film opens with an attempted suicide by a young woman, Audrey (Anna Walton). We see her cut her wrists in a bath. This is followed by the credits and then we see the same young woman driving along a country road. I thought at first that we were in a flashback. Then I saw the bandages and I realised the pre-credit sequence was a key part of what is now called the back-story.

Audrey arrives to stay at a cottage in the Brecon beacon. For a time the film becomes fairly conventional: the remote cottage, an over helpful neighbour, shots through gnarled trees, stuffed birds inside the cottage, a locked upper room. And the local doctor’s dog Anubis reacts very strongly to the cottage. But when the ghost appears the plot becomes distinctive. The centre section of the film has strong romantic flavour. And we find out more about the ghost Douglas (Tom Wisdom), and events in the past.

However, towards the end the mood reverts to the more melodramatic.  I felt that the film here lost the distinctive treatment it essayed earlier. I was unsure if the filmmakers had made the opening, with a rather gothic feel in order to mislead the audience then surprise them, or to hook them into the story before it changes tone. But I don’t think the rather different style mix well. One problem I had with the film was the music score. The early signs of the ghostly presence are aural. And for a time I found it difficult to distinguish between diegetic noise and non-diegetic accompaniment.

Still, the film’s ending is nicely ambiguous and there is one suggestive shot about what possibly remains in the cottage.

A Blood Pledge (Dong-ban-ja-sal, South Korea 2009)

A cropped version of an original Korean poster.

A cropped version of an original Korean poster.

This South Korean horror film was given a UK DVD release on October 14th from Matchbox. It belongs to a form of teen horror franchise known as Yeogo goedam and re-titled as Whispering Corridors in English. This is the fifth instalment. The first was in 1998 with further films in 1999, 2003, 2005 and then 2009. Each film has a separate title as well as a reference to the franchise. The only elements in the ‘package’ that remain the same are the setting in a girls high school, a group of girls as principal characters and the theme that involves emotional relationships and some form of ‘haunting’. I haven’t seen the 4th instalment but I enjoyed all the others.

A Blood Pledge refers to the suicide pledge taken by four senior girls at a Catholic high school (are they called convents in South Korea?). One of the four does leap to her death from the school roof (the preferred method of suicide in several East Asian films) but the other three appear at school the next morning. The leap is witnessed by the dead girl’s younger sister. She begins to investigate what happened and disputes begin to develop between the other three girls who made the pact. The one who died is clearly going to come back to haunt the others.

Compared to the first film this latest instalment is a very slick and ‘clean’ presentation with fluid camerawork. Much of the action takes place at night and in their school uniforms with similar hairstyles it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the five central characters. There are numerous flashbacks and dream/nightmare sequences that are not very clearly marked as such so it’s quite easy to become confused and the experience of watching can make the viewer feel delirious. As far as horror effects are concerned, there is a lot of blood – but since several scenes are located in spotlessly clean school toilets, the overall effect is quite odd. Otherwise there are the usual bumps in the dark. The most interesting aspect of the film for me is the social commentary that appears at various times. We do learn something of some of the girls’ home lives but oddly we rarely see the teachers in the school (teachers are more involved in some of the other instalments of the franchise). The most overlooked aspect of the narrative in the reviews that I have seen is the Catholicism. I thought suicide was a mortal sin, but little seems to be made of it as an event in school.

A useful interview with Lee Choon-yun the producer (and originator) of the franchise can be found here. It seems that the initial idea came from a Japanese film from 1995 and it was attractive to Lee because he saw a means of drawing on a tradition of ‘legends’ or ‘scary stories’ that circulated in Korean schools. He also tells us that he was motivated by his own views about what he describes as the “repressive Korean education system” which turns out ‘good boys and girls’, punched from cookie-cutter moulds”. He also tells us that:

. . . a girl’s high school was an attractive setting. It’s a space that stimulates male curiosity, a place that men have never been in but are fascinated by. Conversely, for women it’s an environment that they can feel nostalgic about.

The temptation in the UK would be to sexualise the girls explicitly, especially via school uniforms, but the uniforms in this film are modest, tailored and seemingly quite expensive. Somehow, the film’s director Lee Jong-yong manages to deal with familiar social issues about teen sexuality and relationships and parental bullying alongside ‘crushes’ and petty jealousies in a measured way so that he can focus on quite long scenes of angry looks, accusations and pleadings between the girls. His previous important credits include script work on Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and as Assistant director on JSA (2000) but this isn’t a Park Chan-wook style film.

bloodpledge

The DVD is available from Amazon. I’d certainly recommend the film to anyone interested in horror, teen films or East Asian cinemas generally. It’s not necessary to have seen any of the four previous Whispering Corridors films to enjoy this one but I think you will want to see how different directors handle similar material. I think that Memento Mori (1999) remains my favourite for the moment, but I must look out for The Voice (2005). All four earlier titles are available in a Region 2 box set heavily discounted, so if you are starting without any knowledge you can now access all five quite easily.

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010)

Seeing and being evil

Seeing and being evil

Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.

SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.

I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.