Bedtime Stories That Bite Back
Jennifer Kent discusses horror debut The Babadook
Psssst! Hey child, there's something dreadful hiding under your bed, with too many teeth, and a top hat on its head. It rumbles and knocks and wants to cause pain, or maybe your mother is just going insane.
That's the premise, very briefly told, of The Babadook, the debut feature from Aussie actor-turned-director Jennifer Kent. In what feels like an interstitial genre moment between horror film trends – we appear to be stalled in a desert of Saw and Paranormal Activity sequels and knockoffs – The Babadook mines a rich, throbbing vein of classic, spooky suspense and high-string paranoia. The story of a widowed and grief-stricken single mom (Essie Davis) and her 7-year-old son Samuel fighting off the eponymous, pop-up book-born monstrosity, Kent and cast masterfully set a tone somewhere between suburban gothic and the incipient creep of total lunacy. Is mom going bonkers, or is there indeed a monster in the closet?
We're not telling, but we did get a chance to talk to director Kent about monsters, filmmaking, and facing her own fears head-on.
Austin Chronicle: Your first short film, "Monster," is up on YouTube, so we had to check it out. It also involves a little boy and his mother and creepy fairy-tale horrors. Was that the genesis of The Babadook?
Jennifer Kent: It was, but it wasn't as if I made ["Monster"] as a calling card film so that I could then make a feature. I tend to work off of a deep idea, and it has to be something I feel really passionate about. With "Monster" and carrying over into The Babadook, it's the idea of facing the unfaceable or confronting our shadow side, whatever you want to call it. My point is the fear of facing something dark is usually worse than actually facing it. I made "Monster," put it away so to speak, and then moved on to a number of other projects, but there was something there that kept sucking me back in and demanded further explanation. And so that's how The Babadook came about.
AC: Are you a mother yourself, and if so, how did that inform the film?
JK: I'm not a mother, but I do have 16 nieces and nephews and almost all my friends have kids. A friend of mine who's a writer-actor read the script and then when she saw the finished film she said, "Somehow by being close to so many kids but not being a mom yourself, you've managed to tell this story in a way that maybe a mother couldn't, you know?" Maybe there's some truth to that – in that being one step removed may have given me a little bit of detachment that ultimately informed the film.
AC: As a child, were you afraid of the bogeyman under the bed or the monster in the wardrobe?
JK: I didn't have a particular creature that came to visit me, but I was very impressionable and still am. I remember the first scary film I saw – I think I was hiding behind my mum and dad's sofa – was an old black-and-white Frankenstein film. I was 6 or 7 and it terrified me but it also fascinated me. I think I really am fascinated by the idea of the monster. I also remember watching a VHS copy of the old Amityville Horror when I was about 12 or so. There was this recurring sequence where they wake up at 3:10 or 3:15 in the middle of the night and that part terrified me to the point that I had to be moved to my sister's room, but still I wanted to watch that movie over and over again. I guess that's an early example of me facing my own darkness.
The Babadook opens Friday at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.