Wednesday, December 24, 2014

STOCKING STUFFERS: The Babadook and Starry Eyes (2014)

Tomorrow is Christmas finally! Hooray! And for those of you who were concerned that I would just miss the point of this holiday forever, well, fear not: I have stocking stuffers for you.

New great horror films don't come around every day anymore, if they ever did – these days, we're lucky to get one or two good horror movies in a year, with most of the rest saturated with remakes and shitty Sam Raimi-produced ghost stories. But there is life in this stagnant genre yet.

Director: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

The Babadook is an Australian flick about a mother and her young son preyed upon by, apparently, a storybook creature in a book. That isn't really what's going on here, though, as the film gets pretty weird on us later. One of the reasons this is so good is that it sort of quietly creeps up on you as to what the movie is really about. Sure, you get a few shock moments where the monster pops up, and that points the movie in one direction. But it's really not just a goofy monster movie. This is a movie about parenthood. It's a weird grotesque tale about a stressed-out mother, and really just uses the storybook monster plot as a way to visualize that stress, anxiety, fear and ultimately madness that the main character goes through.

It's tough to really describe this without spoiling what happens in it. The film just does such a good job of scaring the shit out of you. The directing is a big part of that as it sort of pulls the rug out from under your feet halfway through – it's like waking up from a very deep dream with a jolt, the way the film plays it. It sort of subtly eases you into the clues of what's going on, and then drops you in like a parent throwing his kid into water and shouting at him to swim.

There's a lot of playing around with perception here – like early on, the little kid in the movie is constantly screaming and crying and being as annoying as possible. However, after a barely-perceptible tone shift halfway through, he suddenly starts to seem more like a regular kid – really it was just the mother's ugly perception of him that was making him seem so annoying early on. That's fucking brilliant, and I wish more movies would try stuff like that. Most mainstream movies don't like to try this kind of stuff as it makes it too hard for a lot of viewers to understand, but The Babadook takes some fucking risks, doesn't treat its audience like morons, and is so much better for it.

Another thing I really liked about the film was just the weird carnivalesque silliness it had to it at times. While The Babadook is one of the scariest films I've seen from the 2010s, it isn't all stone-faced serious – I'll put it this way: the climax features toy guns and Home Alone-esque traps. And it works. So many horror movies are almost afraid of being kitschy or cheesy, thinking it's “just dated old 80s stuff” or some such, but really trying TOO hard to be serious usually just results in something much worse, because those movies lack strong direction or writing, which you're really solely relying on when you make something so stripped of theatricality.

The Babadook isn't afraid to throw a few goofy scenes at you, and they're played in a way that enhances the scares and makes the whole thing more theatrical. The fast camera movements, the rushes of wind, the over the top sounds and expressions – it all really makes the movie scarier and more entertaining, because it catches your attention. If a movie can't grab hold of your attention like a vicegrip, what chance does it have of actually scaring you? I'm guessing not much.

I can't say too much more, it would give too much away, and I hate that I have to be so vague – but this is a movie you really have to fucking see to believe. It's seriously some of the most macabre, evil, dark shit around, and I have not been this scared of a movie in ages. I don't say that lightly. Go see it!

Director: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alex Essoe, Louis Dezseran, Amanda Fuller

Starry Eyes is a very weird, dark flick that knows its influences. Watching this, the first thing that came to mind was Mulholland Drive – those sunny, upper-class California visuals, the plot about an actress trying to break into the business. It's all very Lynchian. Add in some weird cult-like plots and characters in black robes, and I'm suddenly reminded of Eyes Wide Shut. Both of those are two of my favorite movies! Great! While unfortunately Starry Eyes isn't as proficient as those, it's still good and I'd be crazy not to give it huge props anyway. After all it isn't like failing to live up to Kubrick and Lynch is some kind of damnable offense.

What Starry Eyes is, is a cool, energized take on the genre with an actually original plot and execution. The movie is about our main character's attempts to break into acting and anxiety about following her dreams. She gets offered a part in a horror movie called Silver Scream, which is very shady and mysterious, with the casting directors acting weird and making her do weird things. She's also surrounded by a bunch of pretentious hipster “friends” who sort of undermine her attempts and mostly seem interested in doing drugs and having sex instead.

The film plays with these themes with a lot of paranoia and weird intrigue, much like the aforementioned Mulholland Drive, showing the lead character's insecurities about herself reflected in everything that happens. The film's themes include talking about doing something as opposed to actually doing it and just the general stress and trapped-in-a-box feel of working some shit dead-end job when you really want to be doing something else. Acting is a tough profession, and Starry Eyes portrays that in a very creepy, off-kilter way – manifesting the lead character's stress physically as she decays throughout the film, both in body and mind.

The last half of the movie sort of just explodes on you and becomes a total gore-fest, which is a lot of fun and definitely wasn't what I expected. At this point, the film started to remind me of Contracted, which I talked about before, and which is another one of my favorite newer horror films – very similar idea here by taking a common every-day fear and splattering gore and blood and stuff all over it, although in this one we get Satanic cults added in for extra fun.

This one wasn't perfect and I do think it got a bit over-eager – maybe it could have paced itself more and had more atmosphere like Mulholland Drive or Eyes Wide Shut, and been better for it. But there's just such a palpable energy behind this...it's infectiously fun, and you can tell everyone had a good time making it. For that I really do think it's worth a viewing, even if it isn't perfect or anything.

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