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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser