Scary monster tale

The horror genre is today linked with gore, loud shocks and recycled ideas (found footage films and endless sequels, anyone?)

No wonder that the film-maker behind The Babadook, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, confessed to "a slight hesitancy" over calling her work a horror film. She worries about the confusing associations that tag carries.

"It's a tricky one, marketing this film as a horror. I really love horror. But the marketing team meet people who say, 'I hate horror, because I don't like violence'. Then they will meet others who say they like horror because they love splatter.

"These horror fans think, 'Oh, great! It's going to be really violent!' Then they watch this and they go, 'What?'," she says, her voice rising to imitate the outraged tone of an unhappy splatter fan.

Speaking to Life! from Australia, the 40something film-maker suggests "scary drama" instead of horror to describe The Babadook.

She says it is a piece of psychological horror that is like "sustained torture, a pair of hands around your neck - at first it feels uncomfortable but slowly, it gets tighter and tighter until it becomes unbearable and everything explodes".

In the film, The Babadook is a monster first seen in a children's pop-up book, but fiction appears to become terrifying fact as events unfold.

Kent's debut feature has received unanimous acclaim, gaining a perfect 100 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes, from all 24 critics surveyed. It was selected for screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Kent is pleased with the praise, of course, especially as this is her first full-length work. Graduating in 1991 from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, she pursued a career as an actress until about a decade ago, when she switched to writing and directing for television and short films.

Then she wrote the script for The Babadook, based on "the idea of a person not being able to face her own darkness, of something in the past that she is not able to face," she says.

To raise the stakes, so that there are consequences for the actions of the widow Amelia (played by Essie Davis, Kent's schoolmate at the institute), the character of her son Samuel (played by first-time actor Noah Wiseman, who was six during filming) was written in.

Reviewers all over have taken note not just of Davis' intense performance as the increasingly terrified mother, but also of Wiseman's complete immersion into his role as the boy who is driving his mother mad with his hyperactive behaviour and invisible enemy, the creature of the film's title.

"With a child that young, you can't tell them how to act by showing them. You need to feel those feelings with him," Kent says.

So if he needed to be angry, she would show she was angry too, to give him the permission to act out.

In the weeks before filming, the director and young actor played games, during which she told the story of The Babadook and how important he would be in the telling of the story on film, she explained. He needed to become as excited about telling it as much as everyone else, she says.

Production, however, went less smoothly. Although the project's under-A$2.5 million (S$2.8 million) budget was financed by government bodies Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation, the team needed more money to complete the set construction.

The producers turned to Kickstarter to raise the necessary US$30,000 (S$38,000), with the appeal built on Kent's 2005 Monster, a short film which formed the genesis for The Babadook. The campaign worked and the sets were built.

While most of the interior shots took place on an Adelaide soundstage (because of funding from the South Australian state government), Kent wanted all the exteriors and interiors to look chilly and as unplaceable as possible.

"It's a film that looks inwards, into a person's mind, her soul," she says.

This article was first published on Sep 24, 2014.
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