Watching out loud

Ebert Interruptus returns to CWA with Josh Larsen and ‘The Babadook’

Jennifer Kent’s 2014 Australian horror classic The Babadook plays Ebert Interruptus at the Conference on World Affairs at CU Boulder from April 9-12. Courtesy: Umbrella Entertainment

It happens every year: “We find something absolutely amazing, totally amazing, in the films. It’s not there, but we find it.”

So said the late film critic Roger Ebert of Cinema Interruptus, the weeklong panel dissecting a movie one shot at a time during the annual Conference on World Affairs at CU Boulder. 

“With any solidly made film, the more attention you give it, the more it rewards,” critic and author Josh Larsen says. “Every movie deserves at least a second look before you can really get your arms around it, and what Interruptus allows us to do is not only give it that second look but to do it under great scrutiny.” 

It’s a rewarding way to watch a movie, which is why CWA’s cornerstone panel continues even though Ebert died in 2013. Not long after, the name was changed to Ebert Interruptus, and since 2017, Larsen has been the host. Among the movies of his Interruptus tenure are the comedy Rushmore, the action-adventure Mad Max: Fury Road, the animated sci-fi Wall-E — each of them a selection that had Interruptus attendees full-fledged fans by the end of the conference, which is likely to be the case again this year.

“We’re going to do The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 Australian horror film about a single mother raising a young boy in the wake of a tragedy,” Larsen says. “It’s a work of psychological horror. … It’s very frightening, but it’s not extremely gory or explicit. I hope it will be something that folks new to horror can give it a try.”

But, as Larsen points out: “Horror fans love this movie. It has attained a huge reputation as one of the best horror films of the last 10 years.”

As Larsen explains, a movie’s cultural cache is certainly a component of the Interruptus selection process, as is “something that can hold up to scrutiny,” considering The Babadook will screen in its entirety for the first session and then be rewatched, “scene by scene, frame by frame,” over the following three sessions.

Audience participation makes Interruptus flourish. Larsen has many thoughts on The Babadook, but this event allows audiences the opportunity to play critic by yelling, “Stop!” at any time to pause the movie and point out something in the frame, express an opinion on the performances, identify how a theme develops visually, ask a question — whatever comes to mind. (I, as in years past, will be manning the Blu-ray player.) It’s like a book group for a movie, “democracy in the dark,” as CWA founder Howard Higman called it. 

“That’s where we’re really going to dig into these creative choices that Jennifer Kent, the writer-director, made,” Larsen says. “Explore how those choices illuminate the various themes in this movie, that, to my mind, make it one of the richest not only psychological horror films, but in the sub-genre of mother horror.”

Critic and author Josh Larsen returns to CU Boulder next week as the host of Ebert Interruptus

Critic and author Josh Larsen returns to CU Boulder next week as the host of Ebert Interruptus, a three-day panel analyzing a single film “scene by scene, frame by frame.” Courtesy: Josh Larsen

‘Fear not’

Larsen knows his horror. Last year, he published his second book, Fear Not: A Christian Appreciation of Horror Movies, where he discusses, dissects and wrestles with 60-plus titles through a theological lens.

“The horror genre itself is gigantic,” says Larsen, who also co-hosts the long-running Filmspotting podcast. “There are so many sub-genres. There are mainstream horror movies coming out. There are low-budget horror movies. There are DIY horror movies — it is a thriving genre, perhaps now more than ever.”

But, as Larsen admits, it’s also a genre that gets “completely dismissed and written off as exploitative or grisly or not worthy of a person of faith’s time.”

Hence, Larsen’s impetus for the book: Is horror a justifiable genre to engage with, and how?

“It’s anxiety producing to watch a horror movie. I know this even as a fan of it,” he says. “A lot of people will ask: ‘Why would you subject yourself to that? If you have a choice, why would you do this for entertainment?’ 

“But of course, there are other reasons beyond just those scares that [make] people feel attracted to horror movies,” he continues. “It’s actually cathartic for some folks. It’s therapeutic for others. To me, it’s also one of the places you can best examine movie craft, because the tools of cinema — whether it’s sound or the camerawork to create the suspense — are so integral to the horror genre.”

Those creative decisions drew Larsen to horror films in the first place.

“Take something like the horror great The Blair Witch Project, which was made for nothing, went to Sundance and became this huge hit,” he says. “If you look at it, it’s extremely low budget, yet, at the same time, full of crucial creative choices worthy of exploring and considering.”

Those choices are bound to spark some exciting discussions during this year’s Ebert Interruptus, whether it’s the exploration of grief at the heart of the story, the horror of raising a child, The Babadook as a feminist expression — even the Babadook as an LGBTQ icon.

“I know we’re going to get some horror fanatics, if not some Babadook fanatics. They bring their own passions and their own interpretations to the experience, and you come out with a richer understanding of the movie,” Larsen says. “I’m telling you, it happens every year: I feel like I’ve seen the film entirely anew because of the conversations we have.” 

ON SCREEN:The Babadook plays Ebert Interruptus at the Conference on World Affairs, April 9-12, CU Boulder – University Memorial Center, 1669 Euclid Ave. Free