A Modern Horror Masterpiece?

babadook

After years of tedium spawned from years of uninteresting horror attempts, we have the pleasure of finally seeing a good horror film

I have found over the last two years or so that when deciding what films to watch with friends that I have in fact been born in the wrong time period. I have friends that want to watch horror films on a frequent basis, but there is a small problem with this. See the problem is, I am hard pressed to find a modern horror film that I can actually tolerate let alone enjoy. 28 Days Later was a fantastic horror film for the modern age, what happened after that?

The generation I’m in seems to have this fascination with films like Paranormal Activity and The Woman in Black which for me are films that are trying too hard and just end up being annoying. It just means I am surrounded by people trying to tell me that Sweeney Todd is a good film, much to my distaste, and people who try to tell me that the Saw franchise is the most complex film series of all time. Worse still I used to have a friend that was convinced, to the point of speaking dogmatically, that The Number 23 is one of the best films ever made. Which it isn’t It’s a film that was pitched to us as a psychological horror, but then didn’t amount to anything. In fact you can guess the ending from very early on. The only way in which you could find that film “clever” as it was so often referred to, is if you watched the entirety of the film until you were approaching the end, suffered a brain haemorrhage, and then questioned what was on screen. And even then you’d probably still get it right.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the genre. Au contraire, I have rather a strong passion for the genre, it’s just I prefer older horror films that actually have substance. Films like The Birds, a fantastic piece of cinema that was expertly made and still remains scary to this day, with a brutal look in to the fear caused by the unknown. Nowadays what most horror films consist of is a group of people we don’t care about being picked off one by one in as graphic a manner as possible. Or it’s a family being “haunted” by a supernatural being. The same formulae is being churned out, recrafted, reworked, and it has just become so boring. It’s the reason so many horror films get sequels; people somehow like the same boring structure just adjusted slightly to a setting almost as identical as the last.

The main problem we need to address of course is that the films are not actually scary. What most horror films rely on to scare the modern audience is jump scares. If an image suddenly appears on screen or the volume increases tenfold in an instant then of course the audience is going to jump in their seats, but they haven’t actually been scared. It’s not that the image on screen has scared them or the sound has, it’s just that an element in the surrounding area has changed suddenly and so the central nervous system in the body responds accordingly.

It’s not how horror used to be done. Nowadays it’s somewhat dependent on SFX so it doesn’t have as big an impact because we can tell it is fake. Going back thirty, forty years ago there were what I suppose you could call progressive filmmakers and artists trying to find new ways to terrify the audience. People such as Wes Craven who was experimenting with plastic moulds and god knows what else to give us horrifying images that still look incredible today, such as the figure of Freddy Krueger being pressed through the wall above the bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then of course there were like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the makeup for which still terrifies people today. And of course one of my favourites, the Oscar winning artist H R Giger working in collaboration with Ridley Scott to give us the beautifully twisted beings in Alien. It was just a completely different world, a masterclass in making horror films. It’s a shame to see that descend in to what we have today.

However, and this honestly one of the most exciting counter arguments I have ever had to put across, I can safely say without a shadow of doubt that there is now a modern horror film that I not only thoroughly enjoyed, but was also terrified of. At the moment the name Jennifer Kent will not be recognised by many, but it is a name that will go down in cinematic history. She is the first time writer/ director that brought us one of the best horror films I have seen for some time now and essentially one of the best films of last year: The Babadook. 

Interestingly I’m in the position whereby I have witnessed what various opinions have been formed on the film. Film critics whose work I listen to and read frequently such as Mark Kermode loved it, however people I know and have more direct communication with through social networking didn’t like it at all. The people I know on Facebook usually come back from seeing Paranormal Activity 13 or whichever number that franchise has somehow made it to, and they’ll post an obligatory status along the lines of “best film ever!!” and yet they came back from seeing The Babadook claiming it was rubbish and boring.

What we must consider is that The Babadook wasn’t necessarily made for the mainstream audience. They have completely different expectations of horror based on what films are popularly being shown. They’re used to jump scare flicks or slasher films. The Babadook turns that on its head and takes it back to what horror used to be. See modern horror films are like clunky machines that haven’t been looked after properly. The gears grind together and screech, sounding and looking like an utter catastrophe but still somehow holding together. What you have with The Babadook is well maintained machinery. It is polished and pristine and runs like intricate clockwork.

I’m trying not to say too much in terms of spoilers because it is best to approach this film the way I did, knowing very little about the plot. It is just a completely different experience among current cinema, moving back to a better paced film. I like how the film really takes its time and develops the characters so we can see they are three dimensional and are torn as to whether we like them or not. The pace of the film is based quite heavily around the power of suggestion. The language choices, tiny sounds, little flickers of light, and shots where there’s something in the background you see in the corner of your eye, it all stacks up to make you feel completely on edge, and it works perfectly. It’s not so much the modern approach of the bad guy jumping out and everyone screaming, it’s focused more on the little details that crawl under your skin and fill your body with shivers.

Honestly I am trying not to say too much about the film because I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. I just can’t stop praising it because it is finally a horror film with an intelligent brain and a beating heart. It takes time, it uses physical elements just like older horror films did, it asks questions, it explores important themes like mother and son relationships and the natural fear all humans have of the unknown. And on top of this is annoyed the people who consistently pontificate about the boring and unimaginative horror films that plague cinema screens most of the time.

I’m pleased to see Jennifer Kent receiving the praise she deserves for this film, including quite impressively a comment from William Friedkin, acclaimed director of The Exorcist, saying “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film” and “it will scare the hell out of you as it did me” Praise indeed from one of the masters of horror himself. Kent has shown that she is incredibly talented as a writer and as an artistic director who creates visually fantastic pieces. I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook and I look forward to seeing more work from Jennifer Kent in the future.

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