Permanent Midnight: It's Sex, Bloodsuckers, and Babadooks at MoMA's New Directors/New Films Series

Get creeped out by children's book monsters, feminist vampires, and Italian incoherence.

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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.

When the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art unite to ride for a new band of rookie filmmakers, you better listen.

The New Directors/New Films festival is a yearly gathering of the most promising burgeoning moviemakers from all over the world. It goes down every spring in New York City. ND/NF, as it’s commonly labeled, is currently in its 43rd year, and there’s a reason why it’s old as your parents—those Film Society and MoMA folks know what they’re talking about. In past years, New Directors/New Films has shown the first movies from people with names like Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater. Its programmers travel to mega fest like Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival, sift through the numerous premieres from first-timers, and handpick the best of the crops. By the time ND/NF kicks off, cinema buffs can simply look at the Manhattan event’s nearly two-week-long lineup and gauge the future of film.

Based on this year’s ND/NF inclusions, the future looks terrific. Launched on March 19 and running through March 30, the 2014 edition is best represented by standout films like Justin Simien’s racially charged Sundance breakout Dear White People, the lo-fi SXSW dark comedy Buzzard, the Jesse Eisenberg-led oddity The Double, and Obvious Child, its “Centerpiece Selection” starring Kroll Show regular Jenny Slate as a struggling stand-up comic grappling with whether to have an abortion or not.

More so than in past ND/NF lineups, the current slate also features a number of excellent horror, or at least horror-centric films. Here are the three best, all of which are quintessential Permanent Midnight material and will no doubt turn heads and tickle critics’ nether-regions whenever they’re officially released later this year.

The Babadook

When you’ve dedicated (probably too) much of both your professional and free time to watching horror movies, there comes a point where it’s difficult for something to truly linger. In the moment, sure, an effective scare or disturbing visual can unsettle, but by the time I get home, it’s become “that cool thing I just saw,” not something that keeps me up at night.

What I saw in The Babadook, however, is still creeping me out five days after watching the film at the Museum of Modern Art. Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent’s masterfully executed creepshow has plenty of memorable scenes, but it’s Mister Babadook himself (or itself?) that’s been clouding my thoughts in frightening darkness.

An original creation from Kent’s shrewd and twisted mind, Mister Babadook is a shadowy, demonic character from a children’s book that pops up on little 6-year-old Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) shelf one night, when it’s his turn to pick which book his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), will read to him before bed. The gist of Mister Babadook is that when children are asleep at night, a scary-as-fuck apparition dressed like Jack the Ripper with a mug like an undead, vampiric mime will float above the kid’s bed and cause harm. As for Amelia, a single mother mourning her husband’s death via car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth, Mister Babadook eventually revises its narrative to show what she’ll do to Samuel and their little dog once the Baba inhabits her mentally exhausted and physically overwhelmed body and soul.

Kent wisely keeps the Babadook’s appearance obscured, only showing its face twice, in a pair of tightly edited shots that give up the goods without allowing you to get conditioned to it. And it’s all the more haunting for that. Namely the second time Kent gives her film’s boogeyman-like monster time to shine, a bedtime showstopper in which Amelia lies pinned down to the mattress, paralyzed with fear, as the Babadook darts across the ceiling like a man-sized spider.

That’s the image I’ve replayed in my head while trying to snooze at night this whole week. I’m fairly certain it’s also the reason why I woke up in a cold sweat two nights ago and couldn’t close my eyes for a good 90 seconds, thinking that if I did so I’d then open them and see that son-of-a-bitch Babadook hovering above me.

This is the first time I’ve reacted this way to a movie since Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath as a teenager and couldn’t get that skeletal woman from the “Drop of Water” segment out of my noggin for weeks afterward. Fitting, too, since Kent turned the dagger in my nerves even harder by having Amelia watch Black Sabbath’s “Drop of Water” during The Babadook.

Had The Babadook only terrified me, it’d still be one of the better horror films in recent memory. But its greatness is deeper than a 32-year-old man’s embarrassing subsequent nighttime issues. Excellently acted by David and young Wiseman, Kent’s film works even better as a domestic drama, showing how a mother’s grief can disable her from nurturing a son whose a budding social outcast. Like so many of the best horror films, The Babadook pulls its scariest concepts from a real place: the difficulties of motherhood. Any woman who has ever privately, and shamefully, wondered what it’d be like to permanently silence their disobedient child will experience heightened trauma from what Kent has achieved here.

The sleepless nights they endure as a result will make mine seem like Rip Van Winkle laid out on a Serta Perfect Sleeper.

The Babadook will be released by IFC Midnight later this year.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night will, fingers crossed, receive a (most likely humble) theatrical release here in the states, and when it does, expect countless reviews to label it as “a fresh take on the vampire film,” or something to that effect. That compliment will be overused, for sure, but it will also be spot-on every time. In this post-Twilight-and-True-Blood world, undead bloodsuckers have been done to, excuse the pun, death. NBC’s anemic Dracula series represents the worst of pop culture’s proliferation of those “creatures of the night”; the best, on the other hand, is exemplified in the 2011 indie film Stake Land, one of those out-of-nowhere, smaller genre pictures that restores one’s faith in the fact that old formulas can still feel distinctive and vital.

That’s an apt description of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as well, a simplistic, black-and-white cinematic oddity labeled “the first Iranian vampire western.” More than that, though, it’s the first feature from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, a bold, no-fucks-given new filmmaker the world needs right now.

At least that’s the impression I had while watching the young and free-spirited Amirpour own the Museum of Modern Art’s Titus Theater last week after the film’s New Directors/New Films opening night screening. Admitting that she’s 30% deaf, Amirpour nevertheless didn’t miss a beat, fielding an otherwise lame field of questions with hilarious spunk. One audience member’s standard inquiry about the movie’s impressive musical choices prompted Amirpour to express her love of music by saying A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s tunes “cum all over the movie.” Which, keep in mind, was said at the highbrow MoMA during the elder-skewing ND/NF festival. Bless her carefree, wonderful soul.

Thankfully, Amirpour’s magnificent film backs up that admirable real-life recklessness. Light on dialogue and heavy on atmosphere, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Nighthinges on an enigmatic but quietly emotive character named The Girl (Sheila Vand), a silent film transplant who sucks the blood of bad people, operating with a quasi-Dexter agenda. She scares the piss out of a little kid by giving him a death stare and asking if he’s a “good boy” or not. The Girl’s tough-gal posturing softens, though, when she meets the handsome and kind-hearted Arash (Arash Marandi), a James Dean wannabe who’s dressed in a Dracula costume when they first cross paths. He’s a good dude mixed up with a drug dealer in an effort to help his junkie father, and through The Girl he finds an unlikely and potentially deadly salvation.

Amirpour tells a familiar love story in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but the film never feels ordinary. With its stark, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it’d the best Jim Jarmusch vampire movie ever made, feeling like something from his Stranger Than Paradise period, if Jarmusch hadn’t just made the sublime Only Lovers Left Alive. And as for the music that, um, “cums,” Amirpour accentuates A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s punk-rock vibe by off-setting various tracks from Iranian rock bands with the White Lies’ “Death,” placing her film’s mood somewhere in between a darker Rock ’n’ Roll High School and the retro sonic appeal of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.

That probably describes Ana Lily Amirpour’s iPod playlist, too. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night couldn’t have been made by anyone other than her—and in that, Amirpour’s debut film defies everything we currently know about vampires in popular culture. Inferior vamp properties like Twilight and NBC’s Dracula are dismissible because they’re soullessly manufactured, overseen by corporations to appease niche pockets of audiences who couldn’t care less about ingenuity. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has none of that interference—it’s exactly the film Amirpour wanted to make, and one’s enjoyment of it will depend on whether you’re able to get on her antithetical wavelength.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, produced by Elijah Wood's SpectreVision company, is still seeking distribution.

The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears

The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears isn't the kind of movie you'd want to watch in the morning, or even in the afternoon. It's a visual stimulant, the perfect jolt one needs after a long day filled with prestige pictures and lethargic, character-driven dramas. Come nightfall, when a festival goer's brain is nearly mush, a film like the latest from French provocateurs Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani is a shock to the system—that is, if you're willing to submit to its sheer craziness. If you're able to appreciate movies that favor style over narrative or substance, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears is a potent, one-of-a-kind fix.

Bombarding the senses with gorgeous images soaked in blood-red and sexual perversion, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears can be described as a throwback mixtape packed with covers of psychedelic '70s Italian horror, with a heavy leaning toward blatant erotica. DJ Argento Presents Sex and Death, Vol. 1. As they did in their stunning 2009 feature-length debut, the surrealistic "giallo" homage Amer (with its badass poster art), Cattet and Forzani treat the camera like a murder weapon, slashing it across rooms, penetrating characters' eyeballs in extreme close-ups, emphasizing the garish color schemes, and obscuring conversations with multiple split screens. They're not telling a story so much as transmitting hallucinations.

There's a morsel of a story at work in The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, a mere fragment of a tale. A surly guy named Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) returns home from a business trip in Frankfurt, Germany, to see that his apartment's empty and his wife, Edwige, is missing. And that's basically all Cattet and Forzani offer in the way of plot.

You could say that Dan searches throughout his ornately designed building—think Salvador Dali and Mario Bava guest-hosting Extreme Makeover: Home Edition together—for any clues into Edwige's whereabouts, but, come to think of it, it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say so. Rather than an investigation, it's a random trip through a funhouse of expressionistic nightmares. The elderly woman upstairs tells Dan a story, seen in what are possibly "flashbacks," about the time her husband disappeared into the ceiling. Her younger, beautiful neighbor, meanwhile, has a body that, when naked, glows like a lightbulb. Later into the night, a naked Dan is chased through his apartment by several other naked Dans, with some of them getting stabbed repeatedly, shown from both the interiors of his body to the exteriors. Intercut through these scenes are looped black-and-white images—yes, in close-ups—of Edwige moaning erotically as someone caresses her nude body with a knife, paying extra special attention to one of her nipples.

What does it all mean? Hell if I know, and, frankly, hell if I care. Could the film afford to lose 15-20 minutes? Probably, but forget about that. The title itself is a put-on. Aside from its allusion to blood, "the strange colour of your body's tears" means nothing within the context of The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears. It just sounds cool. So be it.

To fully appreciate Cattet and Forzani's moving collage of a film, you need to abandon concepts like "conflict," "characterization," and "meaning" and allow yourself to bask in the endless phantasmagoria. If you do so, you'll be rewarded with numerous sequences that, in terms of mental scarring, rival anything seen in horror movies recently. My personal favorite: an extended black-and-white stalk-and-slash scene that's pure giallo, with a sexy lady being hunted by a killer dressed in all black leather, except the film skips throughout as if its playing on scratched vinyl.

I'll be damned if there's another moment in any other horror flick this year that tops it.

The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears will receive a limited theatrical run via Strand Releasing later this year.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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