Dark, unsettling and minimalist – and I’m not just talking about the Nordic landscape. Babycall director Director Pål Sletaune has brewed up a restrained psychological drama which abandons big horror shocks in favour of strong, chilling performances.
Anna (a phenomenal Noomi Rapace) and her eight-year old son Anders (Vetle Qvenild Werring) leave home in order to escape his abusive and murderous father. Once they move into a presumed safe housing complex, the film follows Anna’s psychological deterioration to a sudden, shocking dénouement. As bleak reality slips into an even bleaker fantasy, the audience are left questioning whether Anna’s world of disappearing lakes, abusive social workers, and a son with mysterious purple bruises on his body, are fantasies or grim truths. Using the age-old horror trick of the unreliable protagonist, Sletaune leaves question marks slowly and deliberately throughout the film.
What this film lacks in big shocks or sustained moments of horror, it makes up for in atmosphere. Anna’s breakdown is set against a bleak Nordic landscape of muted colours, life-sapping building complexes, and ghostly shopping centres. Bare neon-lit kitchens and empty car parks work as symbols of her solitude, giving us an insight into her nervous, sleep-deprived interiority. It’s in one of these shopping centres that Anna goes to buy a baby monitor and meets her only friend and a potential love interest Helge (played with a perfect mix of muted despair and gawky hope by Kristoffer Joner). Both exude a genuine waft of loneliness in a way that makes us root for the match, but also question the motives. Why does he take so many photos of her? What is she expecting from the relationship?
Noomi Rapace’s performance sustains the focus of the film. Rapace’s Anna embodies a hunched, painful physicality, with her awkward, skinny frame, wiry hair, nervously pinched mouth and big darting eyes. Her psychological (and often physical) grip on the child is frightening in itself, not least (I imagine) for those with overbearing mothers. There is clearly something about motherhood that is ripe for terrifying turns: think Henry James’ novel The Turn of The Screw, The Orphanage, absolutely any advert for Iceland with Kerry Katona or Stacey Solomon.
Part of my problem with the film was its lack of ingenuity in creating horror out of oft-used tropes: the questionably ‘mad’ mother protagonist, the creepy Nordic child, claustrophobic urban developments. Even the central premise of the film, that potentially haunted baby monitor, is a recurring trope in recent horror films, from Insidious and Paranormal Activity 2 to Spanish efforts like The Haunting and The Baby’s Room. Despite it’s obvious strengths, there was little in this film that I felt I hadn’t seen before. What felt genuinely fresh about it was its commitment to realism – no CGI horror here, thank you very much – and as such, the plot’s slow unwinding and careful entwining of moments of ethereal fantasy worked perfectly.
Sletaune has created a film which is part art-house, part horror, and this potentially awkward cross-category (pulled off so successfully by vampire horror film Let The Right One In) fails to really fully deliver on either premise. A sense of unease, some beautiful scenes of either stark despair or artsy fantasy, some powerful performances – we leave the cinema, not empty-handed exactly, but scrabbling for something more. However, what this visually superior horror brings to life, more than anything else, is the peculiarly haunting loneliness of inner-city living.
Babycall is in cinemas from Friday 30 March, released by Soda Pictures.