Wednesday 28 March 2012

Cries and whispers: "Babycall"

The baby monitor has become such a commonplace in the homes of new and nervy parents that it's a surprise horror filmmakers haven't got around to deploying them as a plot device sooner. Babycall, a slowburner from Norwegian director Pål Sletaune (who made 1997's cult arthouse hit Junk Mail), kits out The Original Lisbeth Salander™ Noomi Rapace with said device, not to mention lighter hair - and a markedly softer voice - as a jumpy, psychologically fragile woman attempting to make a fresh start after an abusive relationship by moving into a council flat with her school-age son. Terrified at the thought of leaving the boy by himself, she places a monitor in his room overnight, only for it to pick up screams, shouts and sounds of a struggle coming through on some none-too-distant frequency.

Sletaune reins in the supernatural implications of the set-up to instead pursue his own form of realism, shooting in a muted colour palette and forcing everyone into interiors that presumably pass for cramped in Scandinavia. The film's closest predecessor, it turns out, isn't The Sixth Sense, but those films that followed in its wake: either of the two versions of Dark Water, or the adaptation of Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener (which could almost serve as an alternate title). These characters have things on their mind (the proximity of social services; a dying mother) even before they're given pause to consider what's going on behind their neighbours' walls.

Rapace remains a compelling presence: where Lisbeth often felt like the fantasy of male writers and directors with a very specific checklist of fetishes, here she has the less glamorous but far more testing assignment of playing a vulnerable young woman with actual problems. In the final ten minutes, we get a flicker of how Babycall would struggle without her, as the focus shifts onto a supporting character who puts the pieces together in a curious, not entirely satisfying fashion. (All I'll venture is that this involves a level of supernatural detection that can't help but feel like a cheat, given what's gone before.) It's certainly intriguing while it's playing out, but you may be better off waiting for the DVD, where a commentary might explain what Sletaune was getting at exactly.

Babycall opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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