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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge