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Babadook: Aussie horror on world stage

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The Babadook, a horror movie filmed and produced in South Australia and released earlier in the year, was largely ignored by Australian audiences but has since taken the world by storm.

A few weeks ago the movie won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First Film and, according to a report in The New Daily: The film is currently rated at 98 per cent on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with only two negative reviews among 82.

Veteran critic AO Scott in The New York Times said the film gave him nightmares, Rolling Stone dubbed it “the scariest movie of the year”, and The Daily Beast called it the “best (and most sincere) horror movie of the year”.

Non-critics agree. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, has recently evangelised the film on his Twitter feed, comparing it with Alien, Psycho and Diabolique, and dubbing it the most terrifying film he has ever seen, while supreme horror author Stephen King has also sung the film’s praises.

First-time director Australian Jennifer Kent celebrates the genre and proves that quality can be made on a budget.

The Babadook was one of the few films to walk away from this year’s Sundance Film Festival with an international distribution deal.

It is the story of single mother Amelia (Essie Davis), who is plagued by the violent death of her husband. Battling with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, she soon discovers a sinister presence all around.

“I wanted them to sit down and start to feel when they watch the first scene like they have a pair of hands gently around their neck,” says writer-director Kent.

“I wrote the film just saying, ‘what if’? What if I start to lose my mind? Or what if a force came over me? Or what if both happened at the same time?

“So without giving too much away, there’s a lot of time in this story spent running away and not looking at something. It’s uncomfortable to watch and I wanted it to be.”

The Babadook boldly creates an intense world that moves between reality and a form of psychosis. An uneasy world to sit in, it is made believable by the genre.

“I love many things but I absolutely love horror because I think it’s one of the most cinematic of genres. It allows dream to come in to the picture without being silly or strange,” says Kent.

“I deliberately wanted to put the audience in her (Amelia’s) shoes. I wanted them to sit down and start to feel when they watch the first scene like they have a pair of hands gently around their neck and that the hands squeeze and squeeze throughout and then it explodes.”

Kent began her career as an actor but soon became bored with the profession. Turning to writing and directing, she decided to “learn on the job” as a directing assistant with Danish director Lars von Trier on Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman, in 2002.

Working solidly on her own scripts in 2005, she made Monster, a short film about a mother dealing with her son’s obsession with a monster in the cupboard. It screened at more than 40 international festivals and was the springboard for The Babadook, which was developed in Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam.

The European influence of both Binger and being on set with Von Trier continues with how The Babadook looks and feels. Bringing on board Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk Kent created an immersive world that celebrates the horror genre.

With a budget of just over $A2 million, choosing the right location to create Kent’s vision was paramount. Looking to South Australia, they found not only investment but also facilities to accommodate the low budget.

“They (the South Australian Film Corporation) were incredibly supportive and then they left us alone. Left me alone to do my job; it was just zero interference,” says Kent. “The studio was an incredible boon and we couldn’t have made the film without it.”

With a precise vision of what she wanted to achieve, Kent admits making the film was scary. However, her own fear of failure paid off. The Babadook has taken more than $4 million in the box office, although only around 3 per cent of those takings were made in Australia.

This article was first published in The Lead.

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