Horror films are becoming more referential. This probably isn’t a surprise to anybody who watches these movie, not should it be a surprise given it’s only natural to recycle what one reveres. Still, the horror genre above all seems to not only embrace this borrowing style with more pride, but is also critiqued far more for doing so. It’s a knife’s edge with a fine line between success and failure. Tarantino hardly suffers from people saying they should simply watch the originals of the films he plucks from. Maybe it is because he twists his references into large-scale (some would say increasingly unwieldy) works of populist entertainment whereas the horror genre is typically confined to smaller, more intimate works and so suffer in the eyes of many as being simple copies of better films.
Whatever the case may be, there’s already been several so far this year. In February I discussed the rather obvious similarities between Grand Piano and the works of Brian de Palma as well as Blood Glacier (out now on home entertainment in Australia by the way) and John Carpenter. Carpenter is again at the centre of a new film’s focus: Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. It is this adherence to reference in Mickle’s fourth film that makes me consider it an artistic step backwards for the American filmmaker who so impressed me with his breath-of-fresh-air remake We Are What We Are (superior to its Mexican original, I say). Although Cold in July is a technically accomplished feature through and through – whether it’s the colour-saturated photography, the chilly score of Jeff Grace, or the stand-out performance of Michael C Hall – but it works best as a technical piece; a way for Mickle to get this Carpenter fixation out of his system.
This decision is ultimately what makes Cold in July not entirely work. The first two acts, especially the first, are wonderfully tight and take the characters in interesting and not entirely predictable territory while paying particularly strong debt to the stylings of Carpenter – particularly the score, with its piercing synthesisers. When Mickle and his co-writers Nick Damici and Joe R Lansdale attempt to veer off, they prove to have very little say, ultimately turning their film into a rather derivative revenge shoot-out narrative that feels neither fresh nor original or a fun referential take on another filmmaker (compare to the upcoming Blue Ruin and its shortcomings are only exacerbated). It’s disappointing especially since Michael C Hall is so good in the role of a man whose second amendment rights send him down a terrifying path when he shoots a robber in his home.
Far more successful in its references is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Nowhere near as overt as Cold in July, this scary Australian horror film is more indebted to Roman Polanski in its look at the fear of motherhood, the lonely progression of grief, and the all-too damaging effect that society’s expectations have on a person that is expected to simply “get over it”, “move on” and continue on with life in a perfect, Stepford-esque existence. Polanki’s Repulsion, with its shifting sands of mental instability and (literally) expanding set design, feels like a film that hovers over the proceedings, much like the titular children’s book character hovers over the bed of its main character, Essie Davis’ traumatised Amelia, with its recurring, garbled refrain “baaa-baaa-dook-dook-dook”.
The Babadook is more than just a haunted house movie (is it even a haunted house movie?), but a film that, like many of the best works of the horror genre, uses the mechanics of horror to tell audiences something else entirely. The mature way that Kent and Davis handle the material feels revelatory for an Australian horror film, and with thanks to the impeccably on point production and character design (this is one of the scariest villains in quite some time thanks to his top hat and somewhat undefined figure, not to mention the book he’s housed in is the best since The Necromicon from The Evil Dead) and sound design it rises to the level of world-class. It’s boutique, yes, but it’s more refined than The Conjuring and stays in the brain much longer, too.
This is a rather exceptional work of cinema from Australia in a year that has already seen the likes of Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays and Aaron Wilson’s Canopy raise the bar for local filmmakers telling unique, interesting stories economically yet of an astonishing high standard. One can hope that the film finds the audience that it deserves. In a year that has seen our last great horror legend, Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor, turned into a carnival freak show (for better or worse, I still liked Wolf Creek 2), Kent’s Babadook is a new frontier for local horror and a must-see for genre fans.