Frightfest 2014: Cheerleaders, Show Pieces, and the Babadook

ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE

As is well-known, the only way in which girls can achieve any kind of power in that hellish jock-dominated microcosm of American society known as high school is either by means of their bodies or through witchcraft. And witchcraft doesn’t work. Or does it? This film from directors Lucky McKee and Chris Siverston manages to bring the two means together, with four cheerleaders dying in a car crash caused by the captain of the football team – a cold-eyed psychopath – then being reanimated by an aspirant witch and school misfit (who is in love with one of them) using magical glowing stones.

However, living dead girls require feeding, and the football team are soon being reduced to shrivelled grey husks, one by one, until the captain works out what’s going on and attempts to grab some of that juicy power for himself. This gains from excluding the adult world almost entirely, creating an overheated atmosphere in which you can really believe that the magical gewgaws work, all the more so because no-one, not even the would-be witch, seems to understand quite how.

Consequently neither do we, but it doesn’t matter – adolescence wouldn’t be adolescence without an element of confusion: just ask the football player whose first sexual experience is with a dead girl, and who boasts to a friend of his new-found knowledge of how cold it is down there. This is an endearingly tacky, rather messy film with few pauses for self-analysis, but helped along by some spirited performances, it’s fun. Dave thinks so too, especially after an opening cheerleading routine in front of the screen by real girls in light horror make-up.

SHOW PIECES

Alan Moore has been notoriously scathing about the various adaptations of his work, so his debut as a screenwriter is naturally of some interest – this, it seems, is what he really wanted to do: David Lynch meets The League of Gentlemen in a dismal Northampton working men’s club. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Three interlocked tales introduce us first to a woman whose adventure in auto-erotic asphyxiation has a dire outcome. Now dead, she is relegated to a secondary character in the next episode, in which a middle-aged man (David D’Silva) on a drunken night out alone (the latest – and last – of many) finds himself in a strangely dated-seeming working men’s club that, it swiftly becomes clear, is where you go when you kick the bucket. It’s an amusingly sardonic conceit – the afterlife as the kind of place you wind up in at the end of the night, without really intending it – and this dark humour becomes even more apparent in the last section, wherein our seedy hero is ushered into the world of the dead by an embittered clown and a burlesque dancer.

This goes directly to the bottom of Dave’s Frightfest chart and you can see why: Show Pieces is cramped, rather static and – perhaps unsurprisingly – a bit wordy. But, directed with a loving eye for detail by Mitch Jenkins, it also conjures a powerfully unsettling atmosphere. At the same time (as the affable Moore is on hand to explain) it represents the first fruit of a much larger project – a feature film and TV series set in the same ‘world’ are forthcoming.

So this is not quite the thing itself, more like fragments of the thing – which is apparent even from the title, the larger project being called The Show. Still, this is more than just a trailer: it’s an intriguing glimpse into a realm that – regardless of whether that other stuff gets made – still feels like it might just be out there somewhere, waiting for you to turn a corner and find it.

THE BABADOOK

Australian horror movies – so it seems to me, off the top of my head – don’t often deal with the supernatural: aren’t they are all about rampaging psychopaths or nature gone rogue? There may be a reason for this – perhaps Australians don’t feel their ghosts are their own – but here, at any rate, is what seems to be an exception. Except, although writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature has the air of a ghost story, its ‘ghost’ isn’t grounded in history or folklore.

Still grieving for her husband, who died in a car crash six years earlier, and struggling to bring up her sensitive son Sam (Daniel Henshall), Amelia (Essie Davis) is not helped by the appearance in their lives of a mysterious picture book called Mister Babadook. Not only does it conspicuously lack a happy ending, it lacks any kind of ending, suggesting that the antics of its ominous title character may not be entirely contained within the covers of the book.

This is certainly how six-year old aspiring magician Sam sees it. He believes in the top-hatted, claw-fingered, shadowy creature, who starts to haunt his dreams – and he may have a point. There’s more than a hint that his Mum, who used to write children’s books, is the author of Mister Babadook, even if she doesn’t acknowledge it or even remember it. Mum, it’s fair to say, is having some issues, and the Babadook is busy embodying them. He’s her Bad Milo.

This is an ingenious and sensitively-handled tale in which the supernatural possibilities of the plot are eclipsed by the fact that only Sam and his Mum ever bear witness to the Babadook’s manifestations, so that the whole thing can be read as a shared delusion. Indeed, we never quite believe in the Babadook as an independent entity – he remains a bit too shadowy – but although this does dilute the menace somewhat, we are still left with the spectre of mental illness, and a child at the mercy of a frighteningly unstable mother (brilliantly played). And this is more than enough to be getting along with.

The Babadook may not be real, but it can’t be killed either. In the end, Kent has her characters accommodate themselves to its (non)-existence, keeping it in the basement and feeding it with worms. It’s a refreshing acknowledgement that a happy ending still requires you to keep the dark side satisfied, and it’s through this that love is permitted to triumph. Dave wasn’t so keen on the love stuff – this is Frightfest, after all – but perhaps he wasn’t being cynical enough: what if love is a shared delusion too? Now there’s a scary thought.

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