First-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent might not have any desire to be the next queen of horror, but she is easily holding the reins in the genre this year with her incredibly tense and terrifying film “The Babadook.” The Australian horror film centers on the relationship between a mother (Essie Davis) and her 7-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), which takes a sinister turn after a mysterious book featuring an evil character appears in their home and beings to have lasting psychological effects on both of them.
During an interview with me, Kent talked about what it was about the horror genre that lured her to make her first feature film and where a character like the Babadook came from. She also talked about the state of American horror and why directors on this side of the pond are getting it all wrong.
As a kid, was there a Babadook or some other kind of boogeyman you thought was lurking under your bed?
Not one specific creature. (Laughs) But I certainly felt it in different forms. I did the peculiar thing a lot of kids and adults do and wanted to be scared and then regretting going to that place. I would watch scary films as a kid and then have terrible nightmares. I remember watching “An American Werewolf in London” and being terrified in broad daylight. So, yeah, I had my fair share of monsters, for sure.
What do you think it is about being scared that makes a person go to a place they might regret later?
You know, I think we all know we’re headed for the final curtain. Fear is a part of life. I think being scared is a good reminder of that. I think, too, on a superficial level, it’s a bit of a thrill. In terms of horror films, I tend to see more than that. I think [horror films] can actually really investigate and explore the human condition in a way that no other genre can. I think horror can be incredibly powerful and beautiful. Horror has a lot more potential than people give it credit.
Where did a character like Mister Babadook develop from – his look, his sound?
It developed from my twisted brain and from what I like and what scares me. Aside from that, everything about him was born from [Amelia’s] fears. Amelia, on some level, created this energy. Everything relates to what is going on inside her life. It’s a conglomeration of everything she is expressing. That was important to me to be able to link that to Amelia.
The handmade book created for the film is great. Did you want the style of the film to center around that book and what it looked like?
Definitely. It really needed to be about that book. One reviewer described the film as a pop-up film, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it. The book is like Amelia’s mind on some level. The whole film is like her dream. The book is absolutely the core of this story.
I read you’ve actually had requests to produce copies of the book. Is that an idea you would even entertain or is the book something you think should stay exclusively on film?
We actually started the campaign 10 days ago to get the book in production. We got 2,000 orders in 10 days. People can still purchase a copy at the film’s website. It’s going to be amazing. I’m really excited about it and I’m a purist. I don’t do merchandising. It’s not my style, but this is in the realm of “books,” so it’s a bit different. It’s going to be very similar to the book that is in the film – the same dimensions and some of the same illustrations. It’s going to be an art book, really.
Do you realize how many people are going to buy the book just to prank someone after they see the film?
Yeah, that’s what thrilled me about it! I’m sure there will be guys who will place [the book] on their girlfriend’s doorstep. Those bastards! (Laughs) But part of me, I can say, is quite delighted about that.
So much of this film lies on the shoulders of Essie Davis and what she is able to do emotionally as Amelia. What were you looking for when casting for the character?
It was really hard to cast for Amelia because it’s not a generic role, obviously. The more complex a character is, the harder it is to cast it. I knew Essie. She was a very underrated actress in Australia for a long time. I never understood why. I was a little nervous working with a friend because we were so close. Our friendship really enhanced the whole process and made it so much more rewarding. We could really jump off the cliff much earlier.
Did you worry that her character might be considered controversial because she is a mother and there are instances where she shows flashes of violence toward her child, a lot of which is spurred by unmanageable frustration?
Yeah, I did actually. I was concerned about it, but I wasn’t going to shy away from it at all. I thought I might get a lot of crap about it, but I haven’t. I think one of the reasons is because all women are set up to be perfect mothers. A lot of women have felt relieved that [Amelia] is a complex, flawed human being. I think we need to see more real characters like that, especially for women.
Do you think that is what is wrong with horror movies these days? I mean, especially here in the U.S., the genre, in my opinion, isn’t taken really seriously as an art form because there are so many generic horror movies with generic characters being made every year. Where do you think the problem lies for the American horror genre?
I think it’s about people not understanding what they’re dealing with and working with. It’s like having this beautiful jewel that you just disregard. They’re not giving the genre the credit for the power it can have. I mean, you see that in every genre. There are always crappy dramas and comedies and art house films, but horror has always been that genre where people want to make a quick buck. I haven’t seen some of the American horror films [that have come out this year], so I can’t comment on the quality of those films, but sometimes films are just made for money. There are films made for mass audiences in the horror genre that do make a lot of money, but are 20 percent on RottenTomatoes.com. It’s sad to me that people want to watch those films. But I guess people want to eat a lot of junk food, too. We all know that’s not very good quality either.
There are a lot of people out there who hope you’ll commit to the horror genre and make some more great stuff, but I read an interview where you said your really not interested in doing that. Why not?
What I am interested in is telling stories that really grab me. I want to make movies that have something to say at their core. If that’s horror or comedy, it’s more about the idea that it is about the genre. I don’t even think in terms of genre. I mean, someone like [Roman] Polanski made three horror films in a row and then went on to do other films. I’m more interested in going on that kind of journey than becoming the queen of horror.
Are you scared of anything when the lights go out in real life?
Well, I moved into a new house out here [in Australia] and I’m setting everything up and in my bedroom there was this big cockroach that was the size of my hand. I battled that for three hours. I refused to kill it, so I was trying to get it out, but it terrified me. (Laughs) So, that simple, common Australian cockroach scared me. I was also in a plane once that fell from the sky, so now I am afraid to fly. Put me in a plane for a few hours and that is more terrifying for me that watching any horror film.