As the hip young follower of video on-demand that you most likely are, you’d probably have noticed that Netflix has a lot of horror films on it. Like seriously, a lot - almost as many as the horde of World War Two documentaries. But while I’ve already watched enough of those to be able to sleepwalk around my house and scrawl “OPERATION MARKET GARDEN” on every available wall, I do enjoy a good scarefest or two. So, as part of a ongoing series where I’ll write a bunch of mini-reviews instead of long ones, here’s a small handful covering some of the flicks I’ve watched recently: The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch.
Former bit-part actress Jennifer Kent calls the shots for this Aussie-Canadian psych-horror, which initially carves its frights out of a surprisingly not oft-visited horror niche - the creepiness that can be found in old childrens’ book illustrations. It focuses on a widowed single mother, Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis), who is still suffering emotionally from the pain of losing her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) almost seven years ago in a car crash - a fatal accident that occurred while he was delivering her to a hospital to give birth to their son. Despite the tragedy, their newborn, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), survived, and continues to give his mother grief of a different variety as an unruly six year-old. In vain attempts to try and curb his difficult behaviour both inside school and out, Amelia ultimately winds up reading him a bedtime story that, to her own memory, has never been seen in the house before. The book - a pop-up tale named ‘Mister Babadook’ - tells a remarkably short, unsettling story of the titular, top-hatted character (the kind of creature that would look at home in The Moomins if that work happened to be a gothic horror saga) coming into a kid’s room at night and tormenting both them and the reader. It leaves Samuel convinced that the creature is real, much to Amelia’s unease - and not even telling him the old adage that “monsters aren’t real” can prevent the full horror of the Babadook’s menace becoming far more genuine - and deadly - than either of them could imagine.
What starts as a clever riff on the unnerving nature of sprog-book artwork soon descends into a cerebral thriller where the lines between cognitive dissonance, manic grief and spiritual possession become increasingly blurred. Kent’s skilled writing deserves kudos for leaving the viewer guessing on which of these realms of madness the Babadook himself is born from, right up until the end - even if the ultimate reveal doesn’t quite live up to the tension the film irresistibly builds. From the get go, The Babadook makes it clear that much of its fear factor comes not from jump scares, but from simple, suffocating atmospheric dread. Wiseman as Samuel sets the tone early on in particular, giving this awkward kid’s mal-adapted interactions with both his mother and the world in general a mildly demented edge. But while the film itself continues to carry that baton by revelling in what it refuses to show visually - preferring shrouded shots on skulking figures in corners of rooms and lots of audial threat - it is Essie Davis who delivers the most compelling reason to see it through. Her character Amelia is at front and center during the final act where the Babadook shows its true purpose, and without spoilers, Davis’ immense, harrowing performance as the lead help deliver a satisfying payoff. These final revelations do also unfortunately prove the film’s psychological symbolism to be somewhat shallow. But even with the lack of narrative depth, both The Babadook’s inventiveness and originality make it a worthy watch. Especially for any former kid who had to turn their book covers away from them at night to hide the spooky faces in the dark. 7/10
It seems every trendy horror fan has experienced It Follows long before I even caught wind of it, and have already experienced its harrowing tale enough for it to be trivial giving an opinion here. David Robert Mitchell’s story about a hookup with literally monstrous consequences succeeds largely on the back of the straightforward but genuinely unnerving premise that sleeping with the wrong person could result in getting more than an unwelcome STD; instead you’ll be receiving a shapeshifting monster hell-bent on violently dismembering you. Unfortunately, that’s just the kind of situation that Detroit college student Jay (Maika Monroe) ends up in, following a more-than-romantic encounter with her new squeeze, Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh though, who caps off their back-of-the-car tryst by gagging her with chloroform out of nowhere and tying her up, has a much deeper problem to resolve than his ideas of post-coitus etiquette. He was in fact being relentlessly hunted by an unnamed, murdering entity that selects its victims purely on the sexual encounters its previous target has engaged with - meaning that Jay is next in line for the creature’s unwanted attention. Suppressing Jay as a means of keeping her in place long enough to convince her of this admittedly ludicrous proposition, Hugh gives her the simple advice needed to rid her of her new pursuer - have sex with somebody else to pass the creature on, and hope that it doesn’t end up killing that person, which would switch its focus back down the line to her.
Daft as it may sound, the film makes the idea work by building both a mystique and genuine sense of terror into its focal creature. It functions largely as its title suggests - following an increasingly perturbed Jay around at only walking pace. But the additional creepy factors - witnessing its murderous intent in the film’s intro, that it’s only visible to the ones it follows, and that it can manifest as different individuals - underpin the skin-crawling presence it exhibits for both viewer and character alike. The film makes it a point to have a lot of fun with this - in particular with planting red-herring passersby as the protagonist’s paranoia increases, her friends bewildered at her freaking out at things they can’t even see themselves. Thanks to the consistently clever, disconcertingly voyeuristic camera work, even the viewer comes to second guess their own perceptions - wondering if that innocuous-looking, slow-moving figure at the back of a given shot is Jay’s assailant in new form. The constant state of uncertainty that It Follows thus revels in is what keeps you on the edge of your seat - leaving the film able to deliver some truly effective jump-scares at just the right moments.
In amongst all the frights, an excellent, John Carpenter-inspired soundtrack courtesy of Disasterpeace colludes well with moving shots of Detroit’s decaying, washed-out suburbia, hammering home the ceaselessly morose sense of foreboding the film slowly envelops itself in. It’s a plight carried no better than via the main character herself - Maika Monroe definitely earns her title as a modern ‘scream queen’ with her performance as Jay. But it’s through the interpersonal relationships with her friends - both male and female, with all the connotations that arise from that given her desperate attempt to be free - that adds a richer dimension to the movie’s story, even in the face of a silly climax. It turns out that It Follows has some far deeper meaning to it than just an original twist on the ‘pursuing monster’ sub-genre of horror, and its subtle side-commentary on the hedonistic side of young life in America is both open to interpretation, and acutely thought-provoking. 8/10
Puritan horror-drama The Witch’s tale of a family exiled from a plantation over disagreements on Bible interpretations, is at best a beautiful bore. Family head William (Ralph Ineson, Game of Thrones) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, also Game of Thrones) depart for another place to settle away from the scrutiny of the plantation, in a bid to bring their children up in peace. Such kids - eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), middle son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and youngest twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are soon joined by another, Samuel, whom Katherine gives birth to shortly after arriving at their new home. Things seem to be going good for them in the outset; William sets up a small farm to grow crops and a pasture to keep the family goats, and the kids seem to get used to their new lives pretty quickly. That is until Samuel, while under Thomasin’s watch, vanishes completely out of sight. A frantic search reveals nothing, save for that the only clues of the baby’s whereabouts could well lie in the forest the family has settled on the edge of - a vast, shadowed wilderness that holds far more sinister individuals than the average wolf-pack.
Rather than being a simple story of a mission to save a loved one from a primal evil, The Witch instead bases itself around the slow, steady collapse the family undergoes as the forces responsible for Samuel’s disappearance begin to weave their influence on them. What starts as an abduction story swiftly shifts into a battle of unyielding Christian faith against the feral unknown, played on a backdrop of panning shots resembling morosely Puritan landscape paintings and shrieking choirs during the flashpoints. At front and center of it all is Thomasin herself - the film more than happy to let Taylor-Joy’s strong performance guide the proceedings. Her character’s quest to redeem herself for Samuel’s disappearance - at least initially - is the core that everything else revolves around, acting as the focal point from which the family slowly disintegrates under the weight of their grief, and their ideas of sin. The film also knows a thing or two about the numerous Satanic tropes it indulges in too - the youngest kids being able to talk to the goats who, in return, ‘tell them things’ being just one example. Another is perhaps the film’s most memorable scene - a disturbing possession event of one of the family members that definitely lifts the movie up a notch or two, even if only for a couple of minutes. But the trouble with it all? Apart from that one scene, most of The Witch is just so dull - and needlessly archaic to boot.
With The Witch putting an emphasis on drama over frights, it’s a film that is surprisingly dialogue intensive - and a lot of it is ditheringly slow. To make matters worse, such exposition is further confuddled by director / writer Robert Eggers’ insistence on utilizing the Puritanical language of the time. Even if the film’s credits insist that the ‘thines’, ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ flung around between the film’s cast are an accurate reflection of the era’s dialects, none of the actors seem to have a good grasp on how it should be delivered. The result, despite the positives, ends up being a lurching yawnfest of a film with all the gravitas of a Shakespeare play down the local theater, distracting away from all the deathly tension it clearly was trying to build. It’s a massive flaw, especially considering how well the climax unravels with Thomasin’s development as the film’s lead being underlined with a twist that throws any perception of the film’s true villains into doubt. But it takes a wicked amount of patience to get there - and, for all of the Puritanical slogging and Elizabethan English prattling involved, a whole lot more to appreciate it too. 5/10