Indie Horror Reinvigorates the Genre

In The Babadook, we get Amelia (Essie Davis), a put-upon single mother struggling to overcome the trauma of losing her husband while raising an emotionally challenged son named Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who fears the monster lurking under his bed and

The Babadook
The Babadook

“No one seems to understand,” Meshell Ndegeocello sings on “La Petite Mort” from her 2011 release Weather. She continues, “I worship the ground you walk on.” A steady, slightly slower marching drum beat and insistent bass line anchor the proceeding. The song, which popped up in an iTunes playlist on my phone, dropped me back into a stream of fairly recent film releases — horror films featuring strong and intriguing female characters.

In The Babadook, we get Amelia (Essie Davis), a put-upon single mother struggling to overcome the trauma of losing her husband while raising an emotionally challenged son named Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who fears the monster lurking under his bed and on the pages of a new book in his bedtime collection. Writer-director Jennifer Kent utilizes a stark and simplistic black-and-white rendering of the children’s book frames to place audiences inside the frightened perspective of a child and the escalating terror of a mother who starts to believe that, quite possibly, her son is the real monster.

I have already expressed my great admiration for It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s subtle and creepy twist on stalking in various outlets, having surrendered to the exquisitely smart and confounding questions of the power and use of sexual promiscuity in the narrative. Horror and science fiction have always had the potential to pose complex contemporary moral conundrums for their characters and audiences, and when such challenges emerge, they are far more engaging than the mundane shock value scares and tech-obsessed visualizations of futurescapes that mainstream fans run headlong into the dark to enjoy.

Ndegeocello is right — when it comes to a particular brand of horror aficionado, we worship the ground that the genre covers, and it has nothing to do with flinching in the face of routine scare tactics. Later on in the song, she implores, “Let me die, let me die, a small death while you tell me the truth.” For horror’s faithful, the truth is about facing the reflection of the fears inside our heads, which is as relentless as the stripped-down rhythm, the funky dread in this song.

Frank Herbert, in his groundbreaking sci-fi classic Dune, gave readers the Litany Against Fear, a meditative chant to steady the nerves in moments of crisis. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” 

Mitchell bolsters the object of fear in It Follows, creating a nightmare that we cannot hope to face. It will not pass over and through us. It kills what it catches. The only recourse is to transmit the fear to others, to form a barrier against the fear, all the while knowing that it will always be out there lurking, following us.

This funky fear takes on the shape and appearance of a deep groove, again like the song “La Petite Mort,” that you can’t shake. In an alternative movie universe, it haunts the landscape of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The new video on demand release inhabits a rich black-and-white ghost world known as Bad City, a deeply melancholic limbo rife with the emptiness of sex and drugs and death that would fit alongside Michael Almereyda’s Nadja, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What little life exists in this space comes from the eclectic soundtrack, a mixtape of 1980s New Wave and Pop and Middle Eastern-flavored electronic dance music. As bleak as it sounds, Bad City, thanks to its affinity for downbeat grooves, has a decidedly romantic heart, as in fact all of the films I referenced do. 

The same could be said, it seems, of Spring, the forthcoming film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhad about a psychologically fragile young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) who takes off for Italy and strikes up a romance with a mysterious and secretive woman (Nadia Hilker). No beautiful stranger is ever what s/he appears, especially in ageless and ancient European cities, so this boy should beware. But while such vulnerability used to be considered a weakness, what we are learning from this new breed of horror is that our exposed soft parts may be stronger than assumed. 

I hear Ndegeocello, almost whispering her final refrain, “Baby arch your back, and tell me the truth. Who’s your daddy?” Maybe fear is, but what if fear itself isn’t all that bad?


CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]

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