Ba Ba Dook Dook Dook!

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The Babadook (Causeway Films, Smoking Gun Productions 2013)

Who knew a child’s book could be so terrifying?

No, The Babadook is not a real children’s book – although the Babadook Campaign launched the production of a physical copy of the book available for purchase. Thankfully, though, the original book exists solely in writer-director Jennifer Kent’s electrifying horror film – a chilling tale of a mother’s struggle to protect her son and rid her home from an evil entity. William Friedkin, director of the horror classic, The Exorcist, even said he had never seen anything more terrifying.

Essie Davis is Amelia, a single mother who tragically lost her husband in a car crash while they were both on the way to the hospital to give birth to their son. Due to the tragedy, Amelia and her son Samuel (played by the very convincing Noah Wiseman) do not celebrate his actual birthday. It is simply too much for Amelia to bear –  the remembrance of Samuel’s birth coupled with her husband’s death. Samuel is already a rather strange child, awkward and anti-social, and this worsens with his continuing persistence of the monster hiding under his bed. Amelia dismisses this as a normal child’s overactive imagination (didn’t we all fear the monster under the bed?) but this soon gets Samuel into trouble at school and begins to test Amelia’s patience.

Her only solution is to remove Samuel from school temporarily and the anxiety of their situation coupled with the monster tormenting Samuel takes its toll on them both. The late nights and bouts of insomnia weighs heavily on them and they begin to suffer the mental and physical dangers from lack of sleep. As Samuel’s fear increases so does Amelia’s desperation while she teeters on the edge of losing her sanity altogether.

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Then one night, during a tender mother and son moment before bed, Samuel retrieves a strange book from the shelf in his bedroom. It is the book of The Babadook and as Amelia reads it, she is alarmed at the sinister message contained within and in turn alarms and terrifies Samuel. The book sets in motion the emergence of the Babadook and no matter what Amelia tries to rid their home of the sinister presence, it only gains strength forcing Amelia to take desperate measures.

The Babadook really is terrifying. Surprisingly, there’s little to none in the way of the overindulgence of blood and violence that seeps into so many horror films today. Instead, The Babadook harks back to the classic horror films, relying on the use of spooky shadows and creepy sounds, portrayed through one of the more original horror tales in recent memory, propelling its principal characters (and you) into a dreamlike, nightmarish world.

But the real horror here, above all else, is the madness, frustration and eventual slip into depression we witness the helpless Amelia fall into as she tries to help her son without really knowing how to help him. Because of it, she is further alienated from the very few friends she does have and she and Samuel find themselves desperately alone, trapped together in a house with a possibly imagined or a very real supernatural presence.

The Babadook won’t be a film for everyone; it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of repression and where answers and solutions are not quite so clear, nor is everything black and white. But if you do desire an eerie, psychological film that boasts compelling performances with a story that elevates it beyond the standard horror films of late, then proceed with caution and beware of Mr. Babadook.

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by Todd Rigney

 

This is a little gem of a horror book.

With the beautifully simple and chilling opening line, “My brother keeps a human head in his closet,” you’re hooked from the start. At a lean 127 pages, Rigney’s story follows Marty, a shy fifth grader who does well in school and has only one real friend. But things begin to change after a bullying incident at school and Marty finds himself alone and alienated. His parents don’t really understand how to help him. His mother allows him to stay home for a few days following the incident, but that doesn’t really seem to help Marty’s lingering problem at school or with his classmates. When his one friend finally agrees to a sleepover, Marty does everything he can to please his friend, who seems disinterested in Marty’s horror movie fascination. There’s a sadness in knowing that the bullying incident has created a rift in even the one friendship Marty has. And as if all of this is not enough, Marty is burdened with a particularly dark secret that hovers his family – his older brother, Steve, happens to be a serial killer (as revealed in the opening line).

Written with straightforward and simple prose, Rigney wrote the novella in about two weeks and self-published it. He handles and addresses rather sensitive and mature themes, especially regarding Steve’s motivation to kill. These themes and issues are similar to issues that Rigney mentions in interviews that he dealt with while growing up in Kentucky. Some fans have questioned if the story goes too far with some of the themes, but we should be mindful that this is still a horror story and there is often a greater flexibility and forgiveness handed to a horror writer. It’s certainly not for everyone, but horror story fans will appreciate Rigney’s approach. He builds the suspense nicely and gives us an honest and human narrator in Marty. The story falters only slightly when Marty’s father suddenly resorts to mild violence which sets off a major showdown later. Yes, the ending is graphic and disturbing and you know even from the beginning of the story that things probably won’t end well. But what happens in the end almost seems too abrupt in the brief time we’ve shared with Marty and his dysfunctional family. In retrospect, it probably works in the context of the story but might have been embraced more if fine tuned and expanded on a little bit.

Rigney also leaves a huge desire to explore more with Steve and his killing nature. The suspense is strongest in the moments when Steve appears. The way he stands silently at the bedroom door and watches Marty or when he comes home in the middle of the day and Marty hears him downstairs, then his footsteps coming up the stairs and disappearing into his bedroom. There’s a terrific sense of foreboding each time and you hold your breath wondering what has Steve done or what will he do. Perhaps Rigney is clever in leaving out the gory details of Steve’s kills, letting the horror of the unknown fester in your imagination. It’s creepy to experience all of this from Marty’s point of view, his terror in knowing that a serial killer lives and breathes in the same house. Through all of it, you root for Marty and you hope nothing happens to him. You feel for him, sensing his longing to share a normal relationship with his older brother, while understanding his maturity in the realization this will never happen. We certainly have Rigney to thank for giving us something new and exciting in the horror genre.

The buzz surrounding the film, which has been circulating the independent horror film festivals worldwide, has garnered quite a bit of attention for both Rigney and director, Scott Schirmer, who co-wrote the script together. The film is available on iTunes and will be released on DVD in late September. Fans and critics are giving the film excellent reviews and the word is that it’s equally, if not more terrifying, thrilling and shocking than its inspiration. Do yourself a favor, though. Read Rigney’s novella. If you’re brave, read it late one night, with only one light on, and let yourself be terrified.

The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff

The Unseen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The novelist, Alexandra Sokoloff, details on her blog, Screenwriting Tricks, about the process of using screenwriting elements and film structure to develop and create riveting stories that capture the reader’s attention. After reading any one of her novels, it is easy to see why her methods are so successful. Sokoloff has built a career on supernatural thrillers (her debut novel, The Harrowing, won the Bram Stoker Award) and she relies on her screenwriting expertise and background to craft together novels that the reader can imagine watching as a film. They are thrilling and well-plotted, combining suspense, humor and romance. There is a clear sensuality that permeates her prose, which is exhibited once again in The Unseen.

It is a tale based on the paranormal studies that took place at Duke University during the 1960s and an ill-fated present day attempt to recreate those studies by two professors and students.  Dr. Laurel MacDonald is a psychology professor, damaged by a failed relationship in California. She escapes by moving to the east coast and accepts a job at the distinguished Duke University, “a Gothic castle of a school,” nestled deep in the Piedmont regions of North Carolina. There she discovers one night in the rare books library an old parapsychology study by the Rhine Lab that ran for thirty-eight years before closing in 1965. The Rhine Lab studied the possibilities of ESP, which is of notable interest to Laurel. But what captures her attention more is the seven hundred boxes of original research material available and no one seems to be studying them.

She meets Tyler, a young male student who instantly picks up on Laurel’s interest in the paranormal. He speaks with a southern drawl and his cat-like watch over her is dangerously seductive. Also joining them in the investigation is co-professor, Dr. Brendan Cody, and another student, Katrina. Answers are sought behind the reasons for Dr. Alaistar Leish’s death, the last person to head the Rhine Lab studies, and why the lab was shut down shortly after. The four attempt to re-create the original parapsychology study, which takes them to rural North Carolina to the Folger House past “horse pastures and patchwork fields bordered by split-rail fences.” This house was researched before which is allegedly haunted by a poltergeist and Laurel notes the wall of tall green trees surrounding the house that “gave an otherworldliness to the place that was awesome and unnerving.” The activation of the experiment in the spooky estate soon turns dangerous as they each become vulnerable and fall prey to menacing paranormal encounters. Like “rats in a maze” they must rely on their wits and physical strength to escape from the presence that threatens to trap them in that house.

Sokoloff sets up her characters nicely and builds the novel steadily, propelling the reader to its exciting finality. The use of Duke University offers the perfect setting – a campus adorned with Gothic stone arches and gargoyles, which seem to watch Laurel’s every move – heightening the spooky effect that Sokoloff is after here. And the Folger House is a classic haunted house. The Unseen recalls Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, or even Tobe Hooper’s film, Poltergeist, but it stands solidly alone as a modern take on the paranormal suspense. The novel delivers what it promises: a fast paced, well executed thriller that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.