Primal fear: Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in psychological drama The Badabook
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If you’re feeling sinister: this season’s crop of Halloween horrors

Ryan Gilbey is chilled by new releases The Badabook, Annabelle and It Follows.

Distributors line up their horror films around the end of October like a row of pumpkins, some plump and inviting, others on the turn. One of the better current examples of the genre is the Australian picture The Babadook (15), which demonstrates what a loss it will be to the horror movie when our world goes fully digital. It relies for much of its creepiness on ingredients that extend back before sound cinema and into the writing of M R James – shadows thrown by banisters, a shape glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, a ticking clock on a mantelpiece. Who even has a ticking clock any more?

It doesn’t get much more old school than the central plot device of a book that appears mysteriously on the shelf and cannot be purged from the home. A haunted e-reader wouldn’t have quite the same effect, though I concede that there are parallels with the unsolicited arrival in iTunes libraries of the latest U2 album.

Reaching for a bedtime story to placate her twitchy young son, Amelia (Essie ­Davis) is surprised to find a pop-up book called Mister Babadook. It details the arriv­al in a boy’s bedroom of a splay-fingered, frizzy-haired, top-hatted menace with more than a passing resemblance to the comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Amelia does what any good Australian mother would do under the circumstances: she tosses the book on the barbie.

But the horrors come from within and are not easily dispelled. Amelia’s husband died in a car crash while driving her to hospital to give birth to their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She has buried her pain and sits in a wanly smiling stupor, gazing enviously at married couples in public. Mister Babadook represents the return of the repressed: it is Amelia’s husband, along with all her unresolved grief, regurgitated
in monstrous form.

The distinction between different species of monster becomes academic. Police officers and social workers are every bit as sinister as any demon. There is also a devil­ish in-joke in the casting: Amelia’s one gentle ally is played by Daniel Henshall, whose turn as a real-life serial killer in the Australian film Snowtown has rendered him forever macabre. Even Amelia is not exclusively a victim. But the writer-director Jennifer Kent places psychological credibility behind every scene so that it is plausible even on the few occasions when it fails to be frightening. We know Amelia is really addressing herself when she screams at Samuel: “Why can’t you just be normal?” or “I wish it was you who died.”

The film depends for its success on warmth as well as chills. In this respect, Kent’s script is well served by nuanced performances from Davis, who makes her character’s dizzying tonal shifts seem effortless, and Wiseman, whose flying-saucer eyes register infinite gradations of fear.

Retro horror is also in evidence in Anna­belle (15), which has been in cinemas for several weeks and is still going strong. This 1960s-set prequel to the 2013 hit The Conjuring ­explains the provenance of the possessed doll from the earlier film. Cradled in the arms of a dying Manson family-style cult member, the inanimate Annabelle absorbs into her eye a drop of blood from the woman’s slit throat. What had previously been nothing more than a freaky-looking toy is transformed thereafter into a conduit for evil, visiting spookiness upon her owners and their infant daughter: the hob in the haunted house takes it on itself to cook popcorn (a nice nod there to us savages in the stalls) and the sewing machine springs into action in the middle of the night. A shame that possession never results in anything useful happening – the washing machine giving the sheets a nocturnal spin, or the kettle descaling itself.

The horror in Annabelle never rises above this silliness. Dolls, like clowns, are scary enough without demonic possession and the eeriest moments in the film are the simplest ones, such as the cutaway during a conversation to the doll upstairs, its head turned as if eavesdropping. One aspect left a rancid taste: in a movie that owes so much to Rosemary’s Baby, it seems imprudent to invoke the murder of Sharon Tate in a scene in which a pregnant woman is stabbed by a crazed cult member. Whatever crimes he may have perpetrated, Roman Polanski doesn’t deserve to have the traumas of his past turned into entertainment by a film that cannot own up to its insinuations.

Road-tested scares are also available this Hallowe’en in the form of a reissue of Don Siegel’s 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (PG). The remake, from 1978, is arguably scarier. That was a banner year for the genre: it also brought John Carpenter’s Halloween (18), which is getting a one-day-only re-release this year. The gliding point-of-view shots and innovative use of space taught audiences to scan the empty frame for places where horror might be hiding.

Its influence was strongly felt in two excellent new pictures that screened recently at the London Film Festival and will open next year: David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, about a sexually transmitted curse, manages to be both dreamy and nightmarish. And Kristy, by the British ­director Olly Blackburn, is an old-­fashioned slasher movie that has on its side a per­va­sive sense of dread and a use of DIY tinfoil masks that will make it a perennial Hallowe’en party favourite to rank alongside Friday the 13th and Scream

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear