Sunday, August 14, 2016

Wishbaby (2007)

Teenager Maxine (Tiana Benjamin) and her somewhat older brother Colin (Doc Brown) live a rather shitty life in London teetering right at the border of homelessness and worse. Their mother (Ann Faulkner) has left the family squat (as in, the building they are in fact squatting in) a while ago for reasons of drug acquisition, Maxine’s skipping regularly skipping school, and Colin escapes the pressures of having to take care of his sister and working a courier job with increasing regularity into drugs. The responsible social workers are ineffectual and clearly out of their depths, and other family isn’t really too keen on taking any responsibility for the kids. In fact, the social workers are just one step from shoving Maxine into the system of juvenile shelters, which certainly won’t make anyone optimistic for her future.

Things change when Maxine and her friend Jeanette (Leona Ekembe) save the elderly – and somewhat crazy – Eve (Fenella Fielding) from a gang of local thugs. Eve walks around with a creepy looking baby doll in a pram. It’s a wishbaby, she explains to Maxine, a magical creation that can fulfil one’s wishes, a process that has – or so she says – been taught to her by someone she calls The Governess (Claire Cox). Maxine’s rather sceptical about the whole story but when the the thugs who attacked Eve die in rather disturbing ways (people with doll heads are involved), and she learns about her coming future in the juvenile system, she changes her mind and asks Eve to teach her how to make a wishbaby of her own.

Eve agrees. But magic has its price and its dangers, and because Maxine – being black and poor unlike Eve who is white and well-off – needs the magic so much more than Eve ever did, the consequences of it for her will be much more severe. It doesn’t help that clearly nobody ever told Maxine stories about the basic malevolence of magical wish fulfilment, nor that the Governess returns to make things even worse for everyone involved.

Now this is a film that by all rights should be held in proud place as part of the canon of folk horror, seeing as it does take elements of the darkest of fairy tales, classic British weird fiction (think Arthur Machen more than Algernon Blackwood, though I also saw echoes of mid-period Ramsey Campbell) and kitchen sink drama, speaking of the same kinds of darkness folk horror is obsessed with but locating it in a contemporary and urban area.

Director Stephen W. Parsons achieves one of those things classical weird tales had their problems with (sometimes for philosophical reasons, sometimes out of disinterest) particularly well, namely rooting the abnatural occurrences in a believable human sphere. There’s always a danger to this approach of losing the weirdness through too much of an emphasis on the quotidian and the human, making the Weird “relatable” instead of letting it push through the cracks in normal life, but Wishbaby does this very well indeed, building the shitty life of its characters up only to let it become much much worse through an outside agency that may work through their own wishes but really cares little about them at all.

There’s a true weight of malevolence surrounding the supernatural here, the Governess embodying an outside force whose motivations seem to be understandable on first look but whose only truly unambiguous humanly understandable trait is a casual cruelty. There are many creepy and actually horrifying scenes here, be it the scenes where people become doll headed things, or the devastating return of what the Governess made out of Maxine’s and Colin’s mum. This is the sort of film where even what would have been an act of deliverance in other narratives is something that is controlled and enabled by the same outside forces the protagonists suffer under, and can’t lead them to any place better than the bad place they started from; the supernatural and the societal forces of life work very much in the same way against these two.

Wishbaby is clearly a film shot on s shoe-string budget, but apart from some very little things (the music is sometimes a bit too loud in the mix, and other minor technical details of that kind), Parsons quite obviously knows what he wants and how to achieve it, making the somewhat cheap look of whatever this was shot on a part of his aesthetics, and showing himself a deft hand at producing dream-like and strange scenes out of elements like some simple props and a dark room again and again, making this one of those films where vision very obviously wins out over the little stuff like a budget. Parsons is also very good working the intersection between the kitchen sink elements, perhaps subtly suggesting that of course those margins of society said society doesn’t care for or about will be the place where the borders between the real and the unreal are particularly thin. This does work particularly well thanks to a cast – particularly Benjamin and Doc Brown – of very natural feeling actors who don’t struggle at all with keeping the moments that are quite the opposite of natural believable.

And, you know, it sure doesn’t hurt to see a horror film whose protagonists are poor and black.

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