Sunday, December 06, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: The Babadook vs. Genre Expectations

There is no genre that has a more tortured relationship to its own conventions than horror. The burdensome pile up of rules and tropes has gotten so thick that there’s a whole subgenre of movies about those rules and tropes (Scream, Cabin in the Woods, etc.)

Even horror moves that aren’t about the rules wind up being about the rules: It Follows was a movie that tried to start fresh, but I felt that it was so concerned with rejecting conventions that it became merely a commentary on those conventions, and failed to work on its own. The filmmakers gave interviews in which they basically said, “Yes, we have flat characters, but we’re subverting that trope, don’t you see?” Thanks, but I’d rather just have compelling characters.

Would-be horror directors now seem to have three choices:
  • Dutifully check off the all the boxes to please the basic horror fans.
  • Flatter the smarter fans by acknowledging and then subverting those tropes and expectations.
  • Piss all the the fans off by making a movie that doesn’t count as a “real” horror movie (all the while knowing that you might have a hard time finding non-horror fans, who tend to reject anything that has horror elements.)
From her interviews, it’s clear that Jennifer Kent feels the burden of these expectations and the stigma of the genre:
  • “There’s a snobbery around ‘genre films’ being perceived in a certain way. That’s why I shy away from using the term ‘horror,’ because it can be a reductive term. I think people expect, ‘Oh, I made this horror film, so now I can make a serious film,’ but for me this is a serious film.”
So why make it horror?
  • “Can you imagine this story as a domestic drama? It would be so melodramatic and stupid. I like films where I’m forced to feel something”
Sometime when female directors make horror, they make sure that they’ll be allowed into the boys’ club by amping up the violence and gruesomeness, but not Kent. She doesn’t shy away from the notion that this is a “women’s” horror movie, not only because it’s about motherhood, but because, amazingly, it has no (human) deaths!

Can you have horror without onscreen deaths? That’s a pretty huge genre convention to ignore...and yet this could not be more of a horror movie! First and foremost, it’s just really goddamn scary. Even when you become pretty sure that neither the mother nor son will die, the mere notion of a mother trying to kill her son (and a son fighting back) is sufficiently horrific. Beyond that, the monster is terrifying, the jump scares are effective, and the atmosphere is tremendously creepy.

And it’s interesting to note all of the genre tropes/clichés that the movie does include, without any attempt to subvert them:
  • Going to the police and being ridiculed as crazy
  • Hallucinating swarms of roaches, even though that has little relationship to the main story
  • Cutting the phone cord
  • Her dog growling at her when she’s possessed
  • Lights flickering in the house
  • Just when you think the monster’s dead, it’s not!
As I’ve said before, some things become clichéd for good reasons. For instance, it would be too unbelievable if she never went to the cops, and yet that avenue must be closed off immediately, and it’s certainly understandable that they wouldn’t believe her.

This movie is the ultimate confirmation of the rule that you must embrace two conventions for every one you reject, but you must not embrace all of them. Just don’t fall into the trap of subverting them just to prove that you’re too cool for school. You’ll please the clever fans, but you can’t tell a great story that way.

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