Last year I had my first taste of FrightFest, and walked away having seen what would end up as two of my favorite movies of 2013 — Adam Wingard’s stellar slasher flick YOU’RE NEXT and E.L. Katz’s black as ink comedy CHEAP THRILLS. So expectations were high this year as I sifted through trailers, trailers and more trailers and wound my way through the labyrinthian maze that is FrightFest’s ticket selling strategy, and finally settled on three movies to see on Saturday: STARRY EYES, COHERENCE, and THE BABADOOK.
Starry Eyes (dirs. Dennis Wydmer + Kevin Kölsch)
If you’ve ever lived in LA, you’ve met the characters that populate this beautifully crafted, slow-burning cautionary tale. Unhappy aspiring actress Sarah (Alex Essoe) works a degrading job as a waitress at a cheap Hooters knock-off called Big Taters, and hangs out with a group of 20-something wannabe filmmakers and actors – none of whom seem particularly driven or focused. Unlike Sarah, who dreams to see her name in lights, and she might have finally get her chance when, after a brutal first audition, she receives a call back for a film called The Silver Scream. Twisting the advice of her restaurant manager (Pat Healy), Sarah quits her day job so as to fully commit herself to what she is convinced is the role of a lifetime. Only, she doesn’t fully understand the depths to which she is being asked to commit. Hints of occult activity are shown behind the scenes while a rift grows between Sarah and her friends, who she sees as jealous and beneath her for lacking grander ambitions. When she’s asked to give a blowjob to Silver Scream’s producer to demonstrate her willingness to push herself beyond her self-imposed boundaries, she is ostracised by her friends for prostituting herself. Fair enough, but the reality is that that act was the beginning of the end of the Sarah that we know as now something terrible is growing inside her. Beginning the final act, the movie moves into truly unsettling territory, as Sarah’s ambition is manipulated and manifests itself into something evil.
Other than being a bit under-lit and LA coming across as a bit too vacant, Starry Eyes doesn’t really suffer from it’s low budget. It captures that throwback 80s vibe so perfectly, and the synth score by Jonathan Snipes was so much fun to listen to. The makeup and practical effects look fantastic, especially in Sarah’s physical transformation and the gruesome final confrontation. Much like the character she portrays, Alex Essoe’s dedication to the role is absolutely captivating, and without hyperbole it is one of the most impressive leading lady debuts I’ve ever seen.
Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit)
Em (Emily Baldoni) is on her way to a dinner party when her mobile phone reception goes to shit and cuts short her conversation with boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling). A moment later, her cell phone screen cracks – something she’s been warned might happen, as a comet is passing nearby the earth and strange events are afoot. If nothing else, it’ll make good post-dinner chat with her friends.
Also at the party are homeowners Lee (Lorene Scafaria) and Mike (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s Nicholas Brendon); new age-y Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and brainiac husband Hugh (Hugo Armstrong); and Amir (Alex Manugian) and the unwanted Laurie (Lauren Maher), whose former relationship with Kevin is obviously a topic of whispered conversation amongst the group. So with the characters establish, the dinner eaten, and the wine pouring freely, the power cuts out and things get weird.
I won’t give much of the plot away because the more blind you go into this the more intense the experience should be, but I’ll say that Coherence is a confidently strange beast – a tense, low-budget, single-location, character-driven sci-fi drama that deftly incorporates Big Ideas with an entertaining narrative. Along with the obvious connections to similar realistic sci-fi dramas such as PRIMER and ANOTHER EARTH, it had echoes of movies such as Richard Linklater’s masterful TAPE, and the Jennifer Jason Leigh/Alan Cumming drama THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY.
The first 15 minutes were a bit jarring with the seemingly improvised dialogue* and naturalistic tone, the forced conversations about horse tranquillisers and comets, the fractured editing style and the cuts to black, and, whether by design or a result of the low budget much of the camerawork wavered in and out of focus which I found to be quite distracting. But once the plot kicks in and we move past the awkward introduction, it’s a riveting tale. I’m not sure what to say about this movie, other than it has a strong chance to be my favorite movie of the year, and much like PRIMER and TIMECRIMES, it’s destined to be one that I’ll refer back to numerous times over the next decade or so. It’s intelligent, thrilling, funny, well-crafted and surprising, but above all else it’s just plain good cinema that begs to be watched again and again. To make things even more crazy – writer-director James Ward Byrkit claims that there wasn’t a screenplay and that roughly all the dialogue was improvised. Is there a word even crazier than mindblowing?
The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)
In an astounding feature debut, director Jennifer Kent takes us to an Australian suburb where widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) raises her son Samuel. 8 years ago, her husband Oskar died in a car accident as he drove Amelia to the hospital to give birth. So as we near Samuel’s 7th birthday, we see Amelia overcome by grief and loneliness.
At the best of times Sam is a handful and quite an emotional strain on mum, but things really go down the shitter as Sam becomes convinced there is a ghoul in his room. When Samuel pulls a mysterious and disturbing children’s book off his bookshelf, this entity is finally given a name — the Babadook.
Dealing with her son’s progressively curious behavior has a toll on Amelia. Everyone — from her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), coworker Robbie (played by a criminally underused Daniel Henshall from 2011’s astounding SNOWTOWN), and neighbor Ms. Roach (Barbara West), to her son’s school administrators and the local police — are worry that Amelia is losing the plot. Amelia herself begins to question reality, but the monster is real and it is horrible. Without trying to sound like a cliche, you will laugh, you will cry, and you will be terrified.
Like Starry Eyes, the stage was absolutely owned by the leading lady. Essie Davis is ferocious, and gives herself over completely to a very unglamorous role, with subtlety and grace and sheer terror. But special kudos need to be given to newcomer Noah Wiseman who absolutely killed it as Samuel — to find a child actor who can hold so much screen time is rare, but to find one who can also handle such an amazingly complex role is nigh on a miracle. But that kind of sums up the movie in a nutshell — from casting to the script to the amazing production design, lighting, sound design and music work, The Babadook is filled to the brim with top-notch quality, and is a wonderful example of near-perfect execution, all the more remarkable because it’s from a first time filmmaker.
The Babadook has the potential to be this generation’s POLTERGEIST, it’s that good. My only qualm was the way they handled the central metaphor, that of being possessed by grief. On the one hand, I can appreciate the message that you can never truly get over the loss of a loved one, you only have to learn to live with it. If this had been directed by, say, Ron Howard or Stephen Spielberg, the final scene would have had sunny skies and smiling neighbors and the unhappy family coming back around with hugs and smiles aplenty. Hooray, we’re suddenly done grieving! So that that didn’t happen was refreshingly honest. But on the other hand, we’re left with this final, curious moment where Amelia has literally locked the embodiment of her grief into her basement where she feeds it worms and makes sure to keep her son at a safe distance. This is a strange and morbid concept that I don’t fully understand.
These are three very different movies, and I enjoyed them all immensely. But one thing I found interesting — whether it’s a coincidence, or the product of some kind of zeitgeist — is that all three have one common factor: they’re each about a woman who becomes a monster. In Starry Eyes, Sarah is literally transformed into some sort of demon/alien thing; in The Babadook, Amelia becomes possessed by her grief which makes her do horrible things; and in Coherence, Em searches through infinite possibilities until she finds something wonderful and ideal, and then immediately proceeds to destroy it. Again, not sure if it’s just something in the water, but an interesting connection to note none the less.