By Tom Moore
The horror genre hasn’t exactly been the kindest to women. Sure, it’s generally a woman who ends up evading and, eventually, taking out whatever killer or entity is stalking them, but it comes at a cost. In order to be the “final girl” women often have to be pristine in sexuality, mannerisms, and of sound mind in order to be worthy of being the last one standing. The horror genre has been in desperate need of female perspective for quite some time and that’s what makes Jennifer Kent such a unique voice and vision in the genre. Even though the Australian writer/director only has two films under her belt, she has made an incredible impact on the genre and she actually started working with another unique voice in cinema.
Kent initially got into the film industry through acting and had a main role in the Australian television series “Murder Call” as well as other roles on other Australian television shows. However, she lost interest in acting and gained new inspiration from a director who’s known for having an unflinching desire to share his vision – Lars Von Trier. She eventually wrote him a very un-business like letter, basically saying that she would rather die than go to film school, and asking to study under him and she began her career behind the camera when he brought her on to assist him with “Dogville”.
While working on “Dogville” and under Von Trier, Kent learned a valuable lesson that she constantly recalled in an interview she had with The Hollywood Reporter at Sundance 2014. “I did a lot of s—t-kicking work on that film but I got to see the whole process from start to finish,” said Kent. “The thing I learned about Lars that I’ve carried with me since is how stubborn he was. He had a vision and even if it was idiosyncratic, he was strong. As a woman, that was something I really needed to take on board.”
With this new inspiration for herself, Kent went on to create her first short film, “Monster”. The black-and-white horror short film easily showed the style and tone that would be all over her directorial debut. From the use of pop-up books to the look and movement of the film’s monster, there was not only an eerie atmosphere that only Kent could bring but also a story that could be easily expanded upon and delved into much deeper. Not only did “Monster” put Kent’s name on the map, but it also gave her confidence as a filmmaker and let people understand her style as a filmmaker. With this confidence, Kent began to write a feature version of “Monster” that would eventually become the Sundance 2014 hit – “The Babadook”.
In her directorial debut, Kent brings slow-burn horrors that stick with its viewers and an incredibly unique style. The suspense of “The Babadook” driving Amelia mad and the horrifying visions that are just skin-crawling to watch and they showed how quickly Kent had mastered the art of horror. Even the way she builds up the film’s titular monster through keeping him in the shadows and having its image be hidden and burned into Amelia’s head is just masterful and Kent definitely succeeds in leaving her mark on viewers. Not to mention, the cringy sounds the Babadook makes as it approaches and the strange look it takes makes it one of creepiest creatures of modern horror and, oddly enough, a figure for the LGBT community.
No, I’m totally serious, after the film’s release there a lot of fanfiction that spread across social media depicting the Babadook as openly gay because of his dramatic persona among a traditional family structure. Jokes quickly turned to action as the character actually was a major symbol for LGBT pride with the character being seen on posters during pride parades and even trended on Twitter as a symbol for 2017’s Pride Month. While Kent never intended for this interpretation of the character, she’s really enjoyed how the character still stays relevant and how much everyone connected to the character.
Kent didn’t just want to make “The Babadook” an unnerving and creepy film, she decides to create a narrative that touched on grief and a women/mother finding strength after a terrible loss. The Babadook is really just a symbol for the grief that Amelia has to overcome with the loss of losing her husband and her story is all about taking control of her issues and finding a way to overcome them. Rather than make her weak, Amelia’s issues with grief are what make her such a strong character and Essie Davis’ performance makes viewers heavily connect to Amelia.
Honestly, I could feel myself wanting to cry for Amelia in scenes where you can feel her frustration and depression building and continuously hoping for her to overcome the Babadook’s power. All of the great direction Davis is given by Kent and all of Kent’s great writing makes the ending incredibly powerful and has deep meaning. It takes on a more realistic portrayal of grief with the Babadook never fully leaving Amelia and her taking control of it hits right at the core of its viewers – something that she would bring to her next feature film.
This year, Kent has actually released her second feature, “The Nightingale”, and has taken on a sub-genre of horror that hasn’t been the best towards women. Rape-revenge movies, like “I Spit on Your Grave”, might always have women taking revenge on those, who have wronged them, but these films never depict females realistically and exploit them for being raped as an excuse to have them enact gruesomely gory revenge in the most emotionless way possible.
With “The Nightingale”, Kent changes the status quo and creates a heartbreaking and disturbing narrative that paints the issues that the film’s protagonist, Clare, in a truthful light that viewers can connect to. Kent brings back the use of dark visions and dreams that Clare faces after she is raped, and her family is murdered by a group of soldiers but makes her heartbroken for her loss rather than hellbent on revenge.
Clare’s final decision to move on rather than sink to her attackers’ level is actually something that I highly respected about how Kent told her story and this makes Clare’s story more realistic and shows her real strength. The way the film feels raw in nature and holds nothing back on the violence and the darkness that it depicts really hits viewers in the gut and what makes Kent such a unique visionary in film.
Even with her success and ability to give women a stronger voice in the horror genre, Kent still thinks that there should be a stronger female presence in the genre. In an interview with The Washington Post, Kent describes how she believes that the perspective in the genre “will shift” and that there’s already a strong presence of female horror fans. ““Women do love watching scary films. It’s been proven, and they’ve done all the tests,” said Kent. “The demographics are half men, half women. And we know fear. It’s not like we can’t explore the subject.”
So, perhaps the future holds bright for Kent’s possibly for a stronger presence for women in horror. Either way, Kent’s already proven that women have a place in the horror genre and will hopefully continue to create phenomenal female stories in the genre for years to come.