‘The Babadook’: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

Nov. 26, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.
mct enter babadook movie review 2 tns The Babadook: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from "The Babadook." (Matt Nettheim / TNS / IFC Midnight)

mct enter babadook movie review 3 tns The Babadook: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from "The Babadook." (Matt Nettheim / TNS / IFC Midnight)

2363196 et 1110 babadook 02 rrc The Babadook: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

"The Babadook" horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

2363196 et 1110 babadook 04 rrc The Babadook: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

"The Babadook" horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

2363196 et 1110 babadook 01 rrc The Babadook: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

"The Babadook" horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Jennifer Kent was a successful actress in her native Australia when she wrote a letter to art house provocateur Lars von Trier, whom she had long admired but never met. She was seeking career advice — Kent hoped to transition behind the camera — so she reached out to one of the world’s most singular directors.

Not long after, she found herself shoveling snow and handling other odd jobs on the set of Von Trier’s divisive 2003 drama “Dogville.” But she also had the rare opportunity to shadow the Danish filmmaker and study his take-no-prisoners approach.

"The Babadook" horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

“The Babadook” horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

“I didn’t need to learn about the technical process of filmmaking,” Kent said earlier this month, during a visit to L.A. “I needed to develop courage in my own voice.”

Her unconventional course of study appears to have paid off. With her new horror movie, “The Babadook,” Kent seems to have tapped into her own artistic ambitions and announced herself as a fiercely independent talent.

Opening in limited release in Los Angeles on Friday (and available on video on demand), “The Babadook” is a chilling dark fable about a boogeyman whose arrival is heralded by a spooky children’s book. But its real focus is the startlingly nuanced relationship between the fragile, wounded Amelia (Essie Davis) and her troubled son Samuel (newcomer Noah Wiseman).

“I always saw it as a love story between a mother and a child,” explained Kent.

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from "The Babadook." (Matt Nettheim / TNS / IFC Midnight)

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from “The Babadook.” (Matt Nettheim / TNS / IFC Midnight)

On Monday, Stephen King took to Twitter to endorse the film, calling it “deeply disturbing and highly recommended. You don’t watch it so much as experience it.”’

The statement was the most recent example of an outpouring of critical praise for “The Babadook,” dating to the film’s premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

Critics responded to Kent’s gift for conjuring tension and sustaining suspense, as well as the film’s unusually frank depiction of an ambivalent mother, a woman repressing unimaginable grief over her husband’s death who simultaneously loves and resents her child.

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from "The Babadook." (Matt Nettheim / TNS / IFC Midnight)

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from “The Babadook.” (Matt Nettheim / TNS / IFC Midnight)

“It was my absolute intention to make that woman real. Even if I received criticism for it, I didn’t care,” Kent said. “I wanted her to be complex and flawed and struggling.”

From the earliest frames of “The Babadook,” Davis’ Amelia wears the haunted expression of a woman bowed by trauma and hollowed out by the demands of a needy child. Samuel is plagued by recurring nightmares, and he builds weapons to defend himself and his mother from monsters.

Amelia’s fortunes decline further after Samuel discovers a ghoulish pop-up book on his shelf that inadvertently introduces the Babadook into the boy’s imagination — and possibly their home.

“It’s a topic that’s obsessed me for a while, this idea of facing and integrating the darkness,” said Kent, wearing a loose black shirt and jeans, her cinnamon-colored hair arranged in an unkempt ponytail.

“I also had a friend who was having real difficulty connecting with her child. He was seeing something he was calling the Monster Man, and the only way she could deal with this really difficult child was to see it as real and talk to it. I had the idea, well, what if it was real?”

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from "The Babadook." (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a scene from “The Babadook.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

That notion inspired an original 2005 short titled “Monster,” but even after its release, Kent kept returning to the idea. In 2009, she spent time at Amsterdam’s Binger Filmlab attempting to complete a feature script. There, the shadowy villain took real shape, she said.

“I wanted to create a myth, something that [felt] like it really existed and was something people just heard about now,” Kent said. “That’s why I chose this strange word rather than calling it the Boogeyman. It feels like something a child could have made up.”

Kent said she’d long been interested in horror as a means “to really delve into the human condition and throw up questions about it.”

The self-professed cinephile spent hours watching silent classics directed by Carl Dreyer and F.W. Murnau, as well as more contemporary work by filmmakers including Mario Bava, Dario Argento and John Carpenter.

"The Babadook" horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

“The Babadook” horror film writer-director Jennifer Kent. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

“As a kid, I was attracted more to scary stories than Disney cartoons,” she added. “I think it was for me a way to integrate the whole of life. Getting scared was a way of developing courage to face the world.”

Kent shared that perspective with the then 6-year-old Wiseman, who, essentially, learned to act during the film’s six-week shoot in Australia in 2012. The director said she and the rest of the “Babadook” cast and crew set out to shelter the boy from the movie’s more intense scenes — during sequences when Davis’ character was required to hurl verbal abuse at her child, an adult stand-in was brought in.

“We worked hard to make sure he was loved and protected and cared for,” Kent said. “He drew pictures of himself as Sam … pictures of the Babadook so he was processing it all. It was helping him understand that the film was really a positive story. It’s heading right through the center of hell to get to the light.”

Noah Wiseman in a scene from "The Babadook." (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

Noah Wiseman in a scene from “The Babadook.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

Although it’s too early to say exactly how “The Babadook” stands to affect Kent’s career, she said she’s certainly heartened by the early response. The $2- million supernatural thriller, financed by Screen Australia and South Australia Screen Corp., became one of the most buzzed about titles at Sundance. IFC Midnight picked up U.S. distribution rights, releasing the movie on video on demand and in select theaters.

Hollywood, too, has taken note.

Kent, who did not have an agent prior to making the movie, has been meeting about possible studio projects, though she’s reluctant to share details.

She’s also continuing to work on her own scripts.

One, she said, is a revenge story set in 1820s Tasmania; another again focuses on grief or, as Kent says, “[it’s] a story of letting go of someone, letting them die. Which doesn’t sound like a very cheery subject, but it’s a very hopeful film actually…. I don’t have any desire to be the queen of horror. It’s the idea that grabs me.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

RECENT AND RELATED

Clive Barker, famous for his horror stories and movies, spends much of his time now in his Beverly Hills gallery painting the demonic and fantastic. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)Clive Barker on ‘Nightbreed’: ‘Where there are monsters, I feel home’

‘Evil Dead’ TV series: Bruce Campbell returns in Starz’s ‘Ash Vs. Evil Dead’

The high art of ‘The Shining’: A guest essay by ‘Horns’ director Alexandre Aja

‘Alien’: Neil Marshall praises Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic [guest essay]

‘Wytches’ writer Scott Snyder’s 13 picks for Halloween horror

‘American Horror Story’: Twisty the Clown actor John Carroll Lynch is scary good

‘Annabelle’ director conjured prequel horror film from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

‘As Above, So Below’ makers find horror, Hell lurking beneath Paris

Comments


One Response to ‘The Babadook’: Director Jennifer Kent confronts a boogeyman

  1. Olga says:

    I saw the movie today…it was awesome! Seeing it again w the hubby asap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close
E-mail It
Powered by ShareThis