With its slow-burn approach and old-school atmospherics, writer/director Jennifer Kent’s critically lauded debut film The Babadook is a prime example of throwback horror put into a modern context to ultimately scare the life out of audiences. It follows a single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) who is coping with her son Robbie’s (Daniel Henshall) behavioral issues, which are tied to a monster from a mysterious pop-up book. As the monster manifests itself more and more boldly, Amelia’s mental state deteriorates to the point where she herself may become the monster.
Kent — who used Shutterstock footage in the film to express Amelia’s mental state via the TV — talked to us exclusively about some of the films that inspired The Babadook, which has become the fall’s most buzzed-about creature feature. She proved to be an excellent repository of classic film knowledge, even though she says, “Strong stories can be told in any shape that fits them, and that’s more important to me than becoming The Queen of Horror.”
Black Sabbath (1963), Director: Mario Bava
A scene from anthology segment “The Drop of Water” involving a dead woman come back to grisly life is featured in Kent’s film
“I wanted all the stuff on the TV to reflect Amelia’s state of mind. I had a lot planned out in the script, but we got to that point and what we had originally didn’t work, so I was just thinking of things that would be relevant. It wasn’t an intellectual choice, but I really loved that part of Black Sabbath and had to pay an arm and a leg for it, I must say! Paid for it myself. That stuff in the TV is like a character speaking to her. It was very important what was on there. It couldn’t be random stuff. I saw that clip again and thought, ‘This is perfect.’ She’s haunted by what she’s done. You see that image and it’s a premonition of what she’s about to do.”
Georges Méliès Shorts / La Maison Ensorcelée (The Witch House, 1908)
Select moments from these silent short films feature in Kent’s film
“Méliès felt very right from the get-go. I love his stuff. I had a binge where I sat down and watched the whole collected works over a period of weeks, because there’s hundreds of them. It really struck me what a genius he was and how he really was the grandfather of special effects — but more importantly for this film, how right it felt. I wanted The Babadook to be low-tech, to feel handmade. It’s like a pop-up movie — the world of the film radiates out from the book. People may say, ‘Oh, the special effects aren’t very good,’ but it’s intentional that they’re of a similar quality to the Méliès style. It’s what resonated for me.
“La Maison Ensorcelée, that’s the Segundo de Chomón piece. Segundo de Chomón is a lesser-known genius. All his films are around the same time as Méliès and they have a similar quality. They’re very childlike, because now they’re naïve — we know how those tricks are done, but there’s a brutality to them. It seems like a perfect blend to me for a storybook. Those old stories are childlike, but there’s something dark and brutal about them.”
The Tenant (1976), Director: Roman Polanski
The third part of Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” which also includes Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, and stars himself as a man who rents a Paris apartment and becomes consumed by paranoia.
“Any filmmaker that has dealt with the mind in a more abstract way has been inspired by The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick) and Repulsion. Also, The Tenant is another film that goes deeply into someone’s mental state. It also has a bizarre humor to it, which really tickles my fancy, whereas Repulsion is a much more straight film in that way.”
Lost Highway (1997), Director: David Lynch
This surreal film follows a saxophonist framed for murdering his wife who takes on an alternate personality.
“One of my biggest inspirations is David Lynch. I have a very broad view of what I call horror — much more broad than most people. I find a film like Lost Highway to be a horror masterpiece, because he’s going straight into the mind of someone who’s not coping with what they’ve done. It’s terrifying! I find that much more terrifying than more straightforward horror films. Maybe younger horror audiences — and I’m not ruling out everybody across the board — would look at a film like Lost Highway and think it was boring, but for me, it’s gripping to watch the descent of that person. Lynch is very inspiring to me. I think he’s very brave in the way he tells stories on film.”
The Amityville Horror (1979), Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Based on the “true story” of supernatural phenomena that befell the Lutz family when they moved into a Long Island home that was purported to be haunted.
“I saw the original Amityville Horror on VHS. I’m sure if I looked at it now, it’s probably not very scary, but when I was about 13, I watched it and it freaked me right out. There’s the repeating thing of 3:15am, and I would always wake up around this time in my bed just filled with dread, expecting something terrible to happen — to the point where I had to be moved out of that room into my sister’s room because I was so traumatized by it. For me, that’s what horror can be: it’s not what actually happens, it’s this dread of what could happen. It’s an environment that should be safe and it’s not. If you can’t trust your home, where are you safe? That made a huge impression on me; at that age, I was incorrigible. I would be terrified by those films, yet I would continue to watch. It was this compulsion! I think to deal with darkness and integrate it in a really healthy way, that’s what horror does. Fear is very relative, so some people can watch The Babadook and say, ‘This is laughable, I’m not scared at all,’ while others say, ‘I was traumatized for days afterwards.’ Fear is like comedy — we don’t all laugh at the same thing.”
Halloween (1978), Director: John Carpenter
This landmark movie about an escaped mental patient named Michael Meyers who stalks a babysitter established many tropes of the genre that would later become clichés.
“I love Halloween. The original is a masterpiece to me, so it’s not that I only like a certain kind of horror film. Again, I saw it when I was very young, so it freaked me out on that level, but going back to watch it many times since, I realized that early John Carpenter was really minimal and sparse, and that in itself makes it frightening. It wasn’t crowded out with lots of sound; it was very economically made. The same with his version of The Thing. The characters in Halloween, we look at now and maybe think it’s hilarious, but they are very well drawn and it still works. It’s still frightening to me, that film. That was one of the first — it’s the forerunner, but a lot of people don’t realize it. That whole neighborhood we see in other contexts as really safe, but here this monster has invaded a safe environment.”
Vampyr (1932), Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
An atmospheric German-French horror film about a student of the occult who enters a village controlled by a vampire. This film and other German Expressionist movies inspired the look of The Babdook‘s title creature, a tall shadowy man with a top hat and claws.
“It always had to start with Amelia (Essie Davis), because she’s created this. It’s her monster. She and her son have somehow created it together with their dynamic, so everything about that thing needed to reflect her. I started with things that frighten me, and things that felt right in regards to death and decay and grief and loss and all those things. For example, I can’t stand cockroaches! I grew up in an environment in the sub-tropics where they fly on your face while you watch TV and they’re really massive. I just went for what creeped me out and what I found beautiful — the Méliès elements, the storybook elements.
“The whole point of using German expressionism is that it’s about bringing the inside out, and that felt perfect for Amelia. You can’t deal with a psychological story like this in a kitchen-sink drama kind of way. I think it would be boring. To put it in a more expressionist place, you could actually go further into what is going on inside her head. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) has been mentioned a lot, but it wasn’t a specific reference for me. It’s probably subconsciously there. I looked at films like Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, which is a beautifully surreal, frightening film, or Jean Epstein’s Fall of the House of Usher (1928), which was another expressionist early silent film. Nosferatu (1922) was kicking around in there, but wasn’t a film I specifically went back to; and also Murnau’s Faust (1926), where there’s a devil that’s pretty amazing.”
Black Swan (2010), Director: Darren Aronofsky
Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her role as a ballerina who begins to fall apart mentally under the pressure of a starring role, with various nightmares haunting her in the lead up to the production.
“I was writing one of the later drafts of The Babadook and saw Black Swan and breathed a sigh of relief. I thought, ‘If this film can get made, then Babadook can get made.’ It was a film that dealt with psychology in a beautiful, surreal way. That was something that inspired me to keep going. I do find modern horror has degenerated a bit, but it’s not across the board. There are beautiful films like Let the Right One In and The Orphanage, but it’s the earlier ones that I went back to for greatest inspiration.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Director: Tobe Hooper
A seminal American slasher film about a group of youngsters who stumble across a family of cannibals living in the middle of nowhere.
“I look at an earlier film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original, and that’s a masterpiece. It’s saying something deeper about humanity. For me, it’s like how an animal must feel at the slaughter. Some people identify with Leatherface, but I identify with the victims in that one. I saw it at the drive-in this year for the re-mastering. A friend of mine owns a van that’s very similar to the one in the film. We were sitting there lying under these blankets and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Leatherface came right now?’ — and then someone dressed as Leatherface with a chainsaw came right up to the door! It had to have been the best cinema experience of my life! We were screaming and yelling; it was funny at the end, because Leatherface said to us, ‘You guys, you’re my people!’ We were the only ones that got into it! There’s something so rough and coarse in a really great way running through that film. It’s a genius film. It’s still shocking. There’s an energy to it, whereas last night, the Friday the 13th remake was on TV and I felt like I was watching a shampoo commercial. Take out the gore and it’s more boring than Days of Our Lives. I can’t get into that. It’s not the type of horror — it’s the mind behind it.”
The Innocents (1961), Director: Jack Clayton
Another psychological horror film, about a governess (Deborah Kerr) put in charge of two strange children who may be under the sway of ghosts.
“I watched that again recently. I watched it through Babadook, then again about two weeks ago. I’m just amazed at how many layers there are in that film. I wonder if multiplex audiences would get that, or if they’d say, ‘Oh this is so boring it’s unbelievable.’ I wonder if we’ve become a bit dumbed down? The Conjuring was more intelligent and the acting was really great. I really like James Wan’s films; there’s a camp quality to them that I really love, actually. I think he knows the genre well and doesn’t talk down to it. The Innocents is so beautifully ambiguous, though. It demands that the viewer work to find out what’s going on. It doesn’t take us for idiots, and that makes it incredibly creepy. It’s this woman manufacturing all this in her head. The ending is phenomenal: Did she kill him? What was happening there? What was going on? That strange kiss — it’s so complex. It can be read in a number of ways, and any film that can do that is worth watching again.”
The Babadook is now available exclusively on DirectTV, and will be released in theaters and OnDemand by IFC Midnight on November 28.