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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

entry arrow11:09 AM | The Delicious Horror of Children's Books in Film

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014) is perhaps the year's most interesting horror movie, a tantalising amalgam of common unspeakable horrors that even William Friendkin, the director of The Exorcist, tweeted that it scared him. And that's a commendation above all commendations. It is ostensibly about a haunted book, gloriously unexplained by the movie, that hides a monster -- but it is also about post-traumatic nightmares, the horrors of single-parenthood, the stress of a wilful child, the embracing awfulness of popular television programming, the despair of having uncaring family, and the dank darkness of insomnia. Going through the film, it struck me that there are many moments in the life of the harassed single mother in the story -- alone, lacking sleep -- that veered so close to the zombie days I've had when there's too much work and the hours pass by so quickly we don't even have time for much-needed slumber. There are zombies among us, and it's us.

And there's the book. Forget Annabelle and demon-infested dolls. Children's books are scarier, and Mister Babadook most of all.

In the film, the monster from the book comes to life cloaked always in convenient darkness, which is understandable considering the low-budget nature of this enterprise. I'm not sure much CGI went into the making of this movie, perhaps just practical effects -- and thank God for that because all the more it makes the film effective. Because the clever use of shadows, slow-burning sound effects ("baaa-baaa-dooook!"), quick cuts, and misdirection -- which was last used so effectively in Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001) -- make the terror more gripping and slithery. The monster has a nice "two-dimensionality" to it that makes its transition from the book's pages seamless.

And now, apparently they're trying to make the book real, with illustrations done by Alex Juhasz, the same artist in the film. I love the idea of a real book, but I'm not sure I'd get one. The whole thing's honestly too creepy.

There's a certain relish to the idea of dark fictional children's books depicted in movies. The only other one I can think of right now is The Door in the Floor, the children's book featured in Tod Williams's 2014 same-titled adaptation of one chapter from John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year. The book, written by one of the story's flawed protagonists, the children's book author Ted Cole (who is played in the film with such gravitas by Jeff Bridges), is about the horrors of childbirth, told from the point of view of the unborn child. And they actually made the book real, with illustrations by Jeff Bridges himself. (How meta is that. Also, I've blogged about this before, here.)

And here's the entire story...

There was a little boy who didn’t know if he wanted to be born. His mommy didn’t know if she wanted him to be born either. This was because they lived in a cabin in the woods, on an island, in a lake—and there was no one else around.
And in the cabin, there was a door in the floor.

The little boy was afraid of what was under the door in the floor and the mommy was afraid, too.
Once, long ago, other children had come to visit the cabin for Christmas, but the children had opened the door in the floor and they had disappeared down the hole.
The mommy had tried to look for the children, but when she opened the door in the floor she heard such an awful sound that her hair turned completely white, like the hair of a ghost.
And the mommy had also seen some things, things so horrible that you can’t imagine them.

And so the mommy wondered if she wanted to have a little boy—especially because of everything that might be under the door in the floor.
Then she thought: “Why not? I’ll just tell him not to open the door in the floor!”
Yet the little boy still didn’t know if he wanted to be born into a world where there was a door in the floor.

But there were also some beautiful things in the woods, and on the island, and in the lake.
“Why not take a chance?” the little boy thought.

So he was born, and he was very happy.
And his mommy was happy again too, although she told the boy at least once every day, “Don’t you ever, not ever—never, never, never open the door in the floor!”
But of course he was only a little boy.
If you were that boy, wouldn’t you want to open that door in the floor?

So would you?

But my favourite one from the film is still "The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls," a very simple children's story that has the exact same devastating power as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. It goes...

Tom woke up, but Tim did not.
And Tom woke up his father... and asked him, “Did you hear that sound?”
“There’s the sound again,” Tom whispered to his Father.
“It’s a monster!” he cried.
“It’s just a mouse... crawling between the walls,” his father said, and thumped the wall hard with his hand.
And the mouse... scurried away.
“It’s just a mouse. That’s all,” Tom said.
And he quickly fell asleep.
But Tim, he stayed awake all night long.
And every time that thing crawling between the walls came crawling back, he’d hit the wall, and he’d listen to the monster... scurry away, dragging his thick, wet fur, and no arms and no legs with it.

I told you. Children's books are scary...

UPDATE: The Babadook just got nominated for Best Film in the AACTA Awards, which is the Australian Oscars. Good for Jennifer Kent, who also got nominated for Best Director. And here's the scary short film, Monster, that started the whole thing. Watching it now made the underlying themes of The Babadook much clearer. I get it, I get it...

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