Hey, Barbecutie

Archive for December 2016

Because I’m nothing if not a monumental messer, I’ve taken a break from the movie writing nonsense to focus on something much more meaningful – a countdown of the best outfits of the year.  For a couple of reasons:

  1. I love lists.
  2. I love clothes.
  3. Sometimes people wear capes and I think we need to acknowledge that.

Here are some highlights:

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babadook

No. 23 – The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

I was tempted not to do The Babadook, largely because everything that could possibly have been written about it must have been by now. It’s one of the rare films – particularly horror films – to attain instant classic status. (Whether it stands the test of time remains to be seen – remember how loop-the-loop everyone was over Let The Right One In, as though it didn’t have that CGI cat scene?) But then it was Halloween and it had good reviews and I accidentally bought it on DVD a while back. And, well. Fuck it.

Amelia’s son Samuel is a handful. He was pretty bad before, full of youthful vigour bordering on irritating, but now, after the appearance of a mysterious pop-up book, she suspects he has been possessed by the spirit of its main character, the sinister Mr Babadook. Amelia is haunted by her own spirits, however, as she tries to tamp down her grief about her husband’s death as he drove her to the hospital to give birth. Sam’s very existence torments Amelia, and the summoning of Mr Babadook is just another misery motherhood has wrought.

As Prevenge suggested last week, motherhood is a common feature in horror films – see Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho, The Exorcist etc. But The Babadook explores a more taboo concept, turning mother against child. Even before Mr Babadook gets involved, Amelia is at her wit’s ends with her spirited child, and from the start of the film the audience is poised for the exhausted and harried Amelia to snap. Kent is not afraid to present Sam as an annoying little fucker at times, constantly demanding his mother’s attention and tearing the house up with unintentional carelessness. As unsettling as it is to see a mother driven to extreme levels of resentment and distrust of her own child, we can certainly believe how someone as fragile as Amelia could be driven to violence against Sam’s fervour. Amelia gets no breaks from motherhood – he bursts into her bedroom constantly, she has to peel him off her at his cousin’s birthday party. Once he is removed from school, she has no respite, causing her to fracture further. Meanwhile Sam tells her repeatedly that he will always be there to protect her – an honourable sentiment, but just another example of his suffocating love for her. (Full marks to whoever spots the Oedipal subtext – and note that Robbie, Amelia’s flirtatious co-worker who briefly acts as a father figure to Sam, doesn’t make a reappearance for a happy ending – it remains mother and son only…) But gradually, Kent winds back our assessment of Sam. As Amelia’s behaviour gets more erratic, we begin to view Sam as what he is – a vulnerable child, both terrified of and for his mother.

Amelia is at breaking point from the off, dressed in childlike pink dresses, watery-eyed and drawn. She is isolated and under attack from all sides – Sam’s school, her dismissive employers, fellow parents. The TV is constantly on, bombarding her with violent images, and as the film progresses, she compulsively flicks channels with seizure-like speeds. Her support system consists of her sister Claire, who is tired of Amelia’s inability to pull herself together. Amelia is surrounded by yummy mummys, all flashcards, organic food and silent judgement at Amelia’s failure to conform or achieve their façade of parental perfection. The scene where Amelia and Sam are expelled from Claire’s party is as horrifying as any of the jump scares. They raise pretty little girls. Amelia begs her doctor to give Sam tranquilisers. Mr Babadook is only one of many horrors of Amelia’s situation.

There is some question as to whether Mr Babadook is real. With his screaming fits and nightmares, is Sam as disturbed as the authorities seem to think? Or is Mr Babadook evidence of Amelia’s own breakdown? After all, she was a children’s book author before her husband’s death, and there is the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy when Amelia reads about the forthcoming horrors (not to be detailed, but let’s just say the dog doesn’t make it). Or perhaps in the world of the film, as the final scenes suggest, there really is a spooky-ooky kid’s book that unleashes a demon on its readers. But, overwhelmingly, the film explores the apparition as a metaphor for grief. Kent’s film isn’t particularly subtle with this subtext (if someone as dense as I can pick up on symbolism on the first watch, you know it’s not especially delicate) but it is an interesting perspective for the film to ignore. It’s unpredictable when the film appears to about one thing (motherhood – eek!) and is actually about another (bereavement – eek!), and if there’s a characteristic that should be rewarded in the horror genre, it’s unpredictability. So I didn’t mind being beaten in the face with meaning as it was interesting.

Amelia’s life appears externally manageable, but there are cracks within. She peels the wallpaper, finds a huge hole in the structure. Cockroaches pour out. Her life is full of wounds that no one else can see. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” the rhyme goes, and indeed Amelia and Sam don’t, instead keeping him in the basement and cautiously nurturing him. As with grief, if I even need to extrapolate. You don’t get over it, as so many people think (including Claire) – you just learn to live with it. The only real support Amelia receives is from their elderly neighbour, Gracie, who tells Sam about her Parkinson’s and seems relatively serene about the hard realities of life. Gracie is the only person who offers Amelia the space to grieve, acknowledging how hard Sam’s birthday, also the anniversary of the accident, is for her. Amelia sees the Babadook invade Gracie’s home, and yet, Gracie seems unharmed – perhaps because she has embraced death as another part of life.

I can see why The Babadook has been such a success. It has a lot more psychological realness compared to so many horror films – as much of the terror comes from real life situations (Sam’s seizure, multiple scenes where it seems like Amelia will hurt him). And this wouldn’t have the same impact without the script and performances, which ensure we find Amelia and Sam’s circumstances compelling. The design elements too are gorgeous – German Expressionism is verging on a cliché for inspiration, but damn does it look good, particularly coupled with the handmade aesthetic of Mister Babadook’s familiars. In truth, the film is more sad than frightening, which makes it all the more effective – it lingers long after the film ends. Not unlike Mister Babadook himself.

prevenge

No. 22 –Prevenge  (Alice Lowe, 2016)

I saw Prevenge as part of the London Film Festival with a Q&A with Alice Lowe because I lead a hideously exciting life. Horror films often benefit from the shared experience of the cinema crowd, and this occasion, in a crowded Odeon full of Lowe-aficionados, was no different. Alice Lowe occupies a strange position in British culture – you may recognise her from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, her frequent appearances on The Mighty Boosh, or her most high profile role, as star and co-writer of the dark, strange, humorous Sightseers. Though more likely, you don’t know her at all.

Lowe is at the foreground of the 1970s-influenced cult comedy revival, all English eccentricity, slightly out of step and out of time, defiantly mundane and unglamorous with occasional flashes of gore and folklore – as though their youth was spent flicking between The Wicker Man and Alan Partridge (think League Of Gentlemen, Ben Wheatley, Julia Davis, Matt Berry). Alice Lowe is a favoured collaborator with much of this scene, frequently popping up as grotesques and naifs, performing with a deceptive intelligence and lack of vanity. But rather than being stuck as “the token woman” in these groups, or turning her sensibilities to the mainstream in the mould of Sally Phillips or Jessica Stevenson, Lowe is forging her own path.

Horror and comedy are frequent bedfellows, which is unfortunate because they usually make a terrible mix. The successes (Shaun Of The Dead, The Evil Dead, What We Do In The Shadows) are far outweighed by the failures (Scary Movies, Lesbian Vampire Killers, any Nightmare On Elm Street sequel). Either the attempts at humour castrate the horror, or the horror makes the jokes fall flat, or, more usually, both. But Lowe has been operating in this arena with a deft touch for many years, and her work doesn’t need to hold the hands of the small but passionate following. It’s not necessarily a matter of “getting the joke”, but having faith in the material, which often features hints of the surreal, the uncanny and the ambiguous. Prevenge, Lowe’s directorial debut, is another confident example of her very specific sense of humour and sense of story, darkly funny, surprisingly brutal, and at times psychological and philosophical. Plus it has a catchy elevator pitch: pregnant serial killer.

Of course, that undermines the complexities of Lowe’s film. Lowe plays Ruth, a deadpan, sullen woman who is hearing the voice of her unborn child commanding her to kill. With Lowe’s comedy background, you might suspect a sketch drawn painfully into feature length, but Lowe has made something more unsettling and tragic, both emotionally and physically visceral, but not lacking in dark, laugh out loud moments. The narrative unwinds in unexpected ways, filled with flashbacks and visions, culminating in something between a sensitive mediation on grief and the Alien franchise. It takes its time to reveals answers to its mysteries – why Ruth is killing, what happened her baby’s father, what happens when the baby is born. The film has faith in the audience’s ability to join the dots without spelling things out or a Psycho-esque exposition at the end.

Pregnancy is a familiar feature in the horror genre – either symbolically as a body horror (the Alien chestburster being the most famous example), or as an expression of vulnerability (see Rosemary’s Baby, Inside, Village of the Damned). Usually, our pregnant heroine is being terrorised – in Prevenge, Lowe’s character is the aggressor. Even by cinema’s standards, horror is a male-dominated genre, and the titles listed above are all directed by men. Prevenge demonstrates that a female perspective on pregnancy in horror has been sorely missed. Lowe, herself seven months pregnant during the 11 day shoot, drew upon her own experiences – the unspoken fears and external pressures she experienced, the loss of her own identity, and the shame she was made to feel for expressing that she had other concerns than the supposedly all-consuming business of being a mother.

Even post-partum, motherhood can have a strange performative quality, as parents compete about how much their child is sleeping, the milestones they achieve earlier than average, how quickly they’ve taken to motherhood. In reality this is often a mask to disguise how they are struggling in private. Prevenge subverts this – Ruth tenderly kisses her victims on the forehead after their deaths, and at one point gently guides one victim’s neglected, ailing mother back to bed before doing some light housework that the victim had been ignoring, a perverse display of kindness (which reads as very funny in context). She keeps a “Baby’s first” scrapbook, but it is filled with details of her prey. Similarly, Ruth is playing the grieving widow, but characters allude to her tumultuous relationship. We all perform a role, one way or another.

Ruth’s victims are often wonderfully horrible – populated with British comedy’s favourite grotesques, like Dan Skinner’s slimy pet shop owner and Tom Davis’ odious pub DJ, puking into his afro wig before sticking his tongue down Ruth’s throat. Kayvan Novak plays it fairly straight as a suspicious climbing instructor who repeatedly escapes Ruth’s attacks. It’s easy to stay on Ruth’s side while she cuts down a role call of arseholes. But her other victims seem largely harmless, not least the friendly flatmate of another target who Ruth reluctantly kills to protect her identity. Ruth herself is not someone we celebrate for acting out her revenge fantasies. She is at times barely likeable, but Lowe allows glimpses of humanity and conflict to peer through, rendering her a compelling figure, insofar as we actually get to know Ruth.

She appears in a number of disguises throughout the film – middle class mum, ambitious business woman and aggressive charity worker – but clearly struggles with the role of “mother”. The Pregnancy Industrial Complex insists that motherhood subsumes every woman’s identity, instead becoming a serene, watery-eyed earth mother. Witness Ruth’s primal scream at the yoga class, a scene which comes unexpectedly amidst the killings, and embodies the conflict within Ruth. Pregnancy is hell, and not enough people are willing to admit that. Ruth is more at ease playing her murderous characters, even practising scary expressions in her hotel room, mimicking an old black and white movie.

Ruth as herself interacts most regularly with her NHS midwife, played with incredible sycophancy by Jo Hartley. She is at once patronisingly reassuring, telling Ruth that baby knows best, and coldly threatening, warning Ruth that she will need to contact social services if Ruth keeps having dark thoughts. Everyone treats pregnant women like they’ve lost their mind, slaves to hormones and mood swings, and while we have become marginally more sympathetic towards postnatal depression, there remain embarrassingly low diagnosis rates of prenatal depression, an equally serious condition usually dismissed as the “pregnancy blues” (whatever they are). Ruth is going through a legitimate crisis, but no one believes her. “You have no control over your mind or body any more,” her midwife tells her. And that’s the crux of the film. Lowe has made a funny, dark and surprisingly moving horror, demonstrating precisely the value of new and underrepresented perspectives in filmmaking. Prevenge could very easily have been a hacky gorefest, but Lowe’s intelligent filmmaking has made something much more durable and compelling. Happily, after bouncing around the festival circuit for much of the past year, Prevenge will go on general release in February 2017, though perhaps it would have been better to wait until Mother’s Day.