One of the buzziest new films is likely one that you’ve never heard of — unless you’re a fan of horror.
“The Babadook,” a small Australian film opening this week and also available on iTunes, has already inspired glowing tweets from such professional fearmongers as Stephen King and William Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist.” Earlier this month, the film, which received a simultaneously warm and shivery reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, landed on Entertainment Weekly’s Must List.
But the most surprising thing about the movie — the story of an emotionally fragile young widow whose disturbed 6-year-old son seems obsessed with a bogeyman from a picture book — may be the fact that it was directed by a woman.
According to Jennifer Kent, an Aussie actress-turned-filmmaker whose feature debut was based on her 2005 short, “Monster,” the popular perception of scary movies has been so colored by the genre’s frequent violence and misogyny that many of her acquaintances were aghast when she told them what she was working on.
“A lot of people, when I spoke to them, as a woman, and said, ‘Oh, I’m directing a horror film,’ it was like I was directing a snuff film or porno or something terrible,” she says. “The view on horror is that bad.”
Why aren’t there more female horror directors? Kent believes the shortage is a reflection of the dearth of women with power in the film industry in general. “It’s a bigger problem,” she says, noting there have been some great recent counterpoints to the horror-movie boys’ club. (This year’s “Honeymoon,” an indie horror film by Leigh Janiak, is one such example.)
“It will shift, as the world shifts,” Kent says, noting that there’s no lack of female horror fans. “Women do love watching scary films. It’s been proven, and they’ve done all the tests. The demographics are half men, half women. And we know fear. It’s not like we can’t explore the subject.”
As a child, Kent recalls, her formative years were spent devouring such contemporary horror classics as John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) and “The Thing” (1982) on videotape. “They made such an impression on me,” she says, likening their plots about monsters in human form, and otherwise, to the stories of ancient myth. (Kent, a former TV actress, doesn’t reveal her age but notes that she went to acting school outside Sydney with fellow Australian Cate Blanchett, 45. “You can work it out,” she says, with a laugh.)
Eventually, Kent’s investigation of the art form led her backward in time, past Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) — another favorite — to horror cinema’s earliest roots. It was when she discovered such “crazily dreamlike” films as Jean Epstein’s 1928 “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Carl Dreyer’s 1932 “Vampyr” that she became hooked on silent horror films. “I really have a love affair with it,” she says.
In “The Babadook,” the protagonists’ TV seems mysteriously stuck on a channel that plays only vintage horror. Snippets of Italian filmmaker Mario Bava’s 1963 “Black Sabbath,” for instance, can be seen, along with other cult clips. And the look of the new film is almost black-and-white, with a reduced color palette accented by icy blues and burgundies. “That was all done in-camera,” Kent notes. “None of it was done with filters or gels and lights or done in post-production.”
With rare exceptions, Kent’s taste for the ghoulish doesn’t extend beyond the 1970s. She loved “Let the Right One In,” an artsy 2008 Swedish vampire film. And the oeuvre of David Lynch — not technically horror, she admits, but still “scary” — kept her from losing faith in the genre’s potential.
The problem with much of contemporary horror, according to Kent, is its literalness. “I feel like a lot of the people who make horror actually don’t understand its depth and its power,” she says. “Unbeknownst to themselves, they’re looking down on the genre. I also think a lot of horror is made cynically, and by that I mean that it’s made to make money.”
Then there’s the violence. According to Kent, “the worst of them — the most violent and degrading and debasing versions of the form — probably are geared toward people who maybe identify with the killer, who maybe are getting off in some way.” That said, the filmmaker calls “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) — the bloody cult classic — a “masterpiece.”
“I don’t think that just because a film contains violence it’s worthless,” she says.
Gore, for Kent, isn’t where a film’s power lies. And she doesn’t believe in reductive labels. “I didn’t think about genre when I made this film,” she says. “And I certainly didn’t think of it as a horror film.”
Although she’s comfortable with people calling it that, she hopes that her first film will raise more than goose bumps. Kent says that it’s the film’s truth — not a literal truth, but a psychological one grounded in the director’s compassion for the flawed characters — that sets “The Babadook” apart. In the end, Kent argues, how special the film is has little to do with the fact that she’s a woman.
“I think my perspective — and it goes beyond my gender, to be honest — but I think my aim was to show real people,” Kent says. “I don’t judge my characters. As a person, I tend to have, I’ve been told, a lot of empathy for people. So even if people have done horrible things, I’m not going to judge them. I’m going to ask, ‘Why?’ My aim for Amelia and Sam, for my characters, was to show their brokenness, and to show the complexity of humans. They’re not heroes in the traditional way. The vehicle of horror allows characters to be broken.”