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

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge