The Babadook (2014)
Dir. and written by Jennifer Kent
Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
You know, being a horror fan ain’t always a walk in the park. It is, I fear, the most disreputable of all film genres, kind of a ghetto where talented people begin their careers and then quickly move on to other things, or a limbo where former talent washes up as their career crumbles -- and that’s if you’re lucky. More often, it seems like, it’s actually the realm of neither, and instead a depressing assembly line for mediocre salesmen churning out forgettable, derivative product with the minimum possible effort to a niche market that will basically buy anything they’re selling. Horror fans will watch it no matter what, so why make an effort? Rom-coms may not exactly have huge artistic ambitions, but at least they can score major stars and top production talent. Action movies may not win a lot of Oscars, but they can still command budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. Hell, even sleazy sex flicks can find classy, A-list directors waiting to churn out the next 9 ½ WEEKS or whatever. But horror movies are almost exclusively the realm of the low-budget, the b-list worker bees, grinding their way through a career of modest profits culled from modest genre productions that a certain demographic is almost guaranteed to see and no one else would ever be remotely interested in.
Horror has its masterpieces, of course, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that it also probably has a far more dire shit-to-hit ratio than… well, any subcategory you can really think of. I know. I watch a lot of horror movies. And I love a lot of horror movies, but I love them the same way you do your crazy racist uncles who think that the EPA is a Mexican plot to take our guns: you can see the charm, but you also understand that they require a lot of apologizing for. The result is, as a horror fan you see a lot of enjoyable movies, but can’t in good conscience really push them on other people. I’ve reviewed 29 movies so far this Chainsawnukah (and I’m not even half done) but when people ask me what the best movie I’ve seen so far is I go kinda blank. I guess DEAD OF NIGHT, but that one has some pretty dull parts at the beginning and a lot of people are gonna be put off by its old-fashion stogy British-ness. I was really impressed by LOVELY MOLLY, but I seem to be in the minority on that one. ALYCE KILLS and THE WHIP AND THE BODY have their charms, but I dunno that people who aren’t into horror would find much to enjoy there. Frankly, I hadn’t really seen one that I felt comfortable shouting from the rooftops about. One that I could enthusiastically say “it’s really great!” and not have to follow that up with “...for a horror movie.”
|Damn hipsters... first it was restaurants, then theaters, then barber shops and dance clubs, now they've come for our books. IS THERE ANYTHING THESE PEOPLE WON'T MAKE POP-UP?!|
Until now. THE BABADOOK is that movie, the one that you hope for as a horror fan but never dare to really allow yourself to expect. It’s artful, serious, thoughtful and carefully constructed, full of rich psychological detail and great acting but without ever skimping on the pit-of-your-stomach tension or being shy about delivering the bloody horror goods.
We begin our tale with mom Amelia (Essie Davis, “Maggie” in MATRIX REVOLUTIONS?) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in a fairly unhappy state of affairs. She’s a single mom (Samuel’s dad died in a car accident on the way to his birth) stretched far too thin between her low-payed, thankless job, her still-overwhelming grief over her husband’s death seven years ago, and her other taxing job as a parent to a very fucking difficult kid. Samuel has severe issues. He wants to be good, but I think there’s little doubt that his mother’s fragile mental state has turned him into something of a terror. He can’t sleep through the night without waking screaming from nightmares (which means Amelia never gets any sleep either) and has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, which has led to several violent confrontations with other children and got him kicked out of school. The longer these factors remain unchanged, the tenser and closer to the edge both mother and child get. So when Samuel finds a mysterious children’s book about Mr. Babadook -- a top-hatted wild-eyed fiend who giddily narrates in singsong rhyme exactly how he wants to take over your life and eat your soul-- well, let’s just say the added stress doesn’t help matters any, not that they really needed much prodding to go over the edge anyway. Not the ideal bedtime reading for this particular child, I would think, not that I’m Steve Martin from PARENTHOOD or anything.
Things start off bad, but boy, does the movie lay the pain on this unfortunate couple. Essie Davis --if there’s any justice in the universe, soon to star in absolutely everything*-- gives an all-time great tortured performance, her sunken eyes too dulled from lack of sleep to even quite grasp just how miserable and isolated she is. And besides, she’s just barely scraping by as it is -- just like LOVELY MOLLY, THE BABADOOK does great work capturing the difficulty of being both poor and haunted. This poor lady doesn’t have time to lose her mind! Who can afford it?! The more she tries to claw out of her hole, the deeper she seems to sink and the worse things get for her. And at least part of the reason for all this is that she has never truly dealt with the pain of her husband’s death, which she maybe, in some tiny unacknowledged way, might blame Samuel for. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look / you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” reads the first page of Seussian prose -- there may be a real monster here, but you have to invite it in, it starts with you and your own mind.
|No Babadook, still just Narnia in here.|
Davis’s performance by itself is absolutely dynamite, but it also has the advantage of a stellar production, from Jennifer Kent (“Lab Lady” in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY)’s boldly stylish direction to the intense, half-gritty half-hallucinogenic cinematography of Radek Ladczuk, the phenomenal editing of Simon Njoo and the droning, rattling sound mix and the low-key, ominous score by Jed Kurzel. I mention all these people by name because the magic that happens here draws strength from each of these disciplines working together to create an engrossing and overwhelmingly oppressive tension which blankets every single scene in a faceless, lingering dread. Even if it had nothing else going for it, this would have to be one of the very best on-screen evocations of true exhaustion --that kind that transcends merely being tired and gobbles you right down to your soul-- that I’ve ever seen. Its portrayal of extreme sleep deprivation turning everything into a fog of shifting reality and bleary-eyed distance is a perfect auger for the shifting, unsteady relative reality which so often is the source of the truest horror. Both mother and child here have reached the point of desperate, relentless hopelessness, and it is eating away at their sanity, Babadook or no. There may --or may not-- be something genuinely supernatural happening here, but whatever it is comes decidedly second to the simmering grief, rage, and simple exhaustion that weighs down these poor souls.
Having said that, don’t go thinking this is one of those waffling, coquettish spooky movies that confuses being coy and ambiguous with being classy. No, whatever the ultimate reality here is, THE BABADOOK heroically makes the most both of its long, tense buildup and its bursts of shockingly aggressive horror imagery. The Babadook itself is phenomenal creation, a bristling mess of teeth and claws buried in the shadow of a top hat and crowned with a pair of wild eyes. It (perhaps appropriately) recalls Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde, and maybe more explicitly the wonderfully fearful visage of Lon Chaney in the now-lost silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. But its unsettling movement and low, rattling voice grunting baaaaa...baaaa….doooook is something that only a judicious use of modern technology could have produced, marking an exceedingly rare sublime blending of old school icons with smartly modern methodology. But even before we ever see this nightmarish figure, we’re already primed for irrational, unremitting terror because this god damn book that starts it all is the most fucking terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life. From its blood red homemade cover (the only bright color in an otherwise muted grayscale world) to its cheerfully malicious rhymes to --most importantly-- its malevolent black and white pop-up illustrations (designed by Alex Juhasz, who needs to either be given some kind of presidential medal of valor or locked up far away from normal society), the whole package somehow manages to pull you right back to your childhood, into a frightening and mysterious world where reality and fantasy really do seem hopelessly inextricable.
|Better read than dead|
The film does have some mild problems in its final act; I don’t want to say too much and spoil it but there’s an unexpected and seamlessly handled subtle perspective change towards the end. Not a problem in itself, but as it happens the film gradually shifts from tense psychological horror to something a bit more conventional, and while it’s commendably good in that mode too, actual violence is almost a relief after the unbearable gut-churning leadup to it. Less is usually more with horror, but the difficulty of a film is that you gotta escalate things to a finale and that means that ultimately “more” is almost inevitable. THE BABADOOK can’t quite find a way around that conundrum, and so diminishes ever-so-slightly in its final reel. The movie also has a little trouble landing, with the action building and then ebbing, building again and then ebbing again, when it should obviously be a straight escalation if anything at all. It feels like they weren’t quite sure where to end things, and maybe go on a scene or two longer than the benefits of more story outweigh the appeal of succinctness. That’s a minor complaint, mind you. It’s not like it ever goes totally off the rails, just doesn’t end quite with quite the strength it maintains for most of the runtime. Really it’s only something I would complain about in a film that I otherwise found as impressive as this one.
Any minor issues I had, though, are wildly outweighed by all the good stuff THE BABADOOK has going for it. This is a slow, tense, troubling portrait of grief and madness married with paranoid psychological horror and executed with a finely-tuned precision that makes it all look easy. It’s got some of the best acting you’re ever likely to see in a horror movie --or any movie this year-- along with an ingeniously designed self-contained monster mythos any self-respecting slasher movie would, well, kill for. And it manages to do all this and still feel relatable and grounded. This is a tremendous first feature for director Jennifer Kent and I dearly look forward to gushing about how great she is for many subsequent features. But Jennifer -- don’t abandon us horror fans now that you’re a big shot. Holocaust dramas are not hurting for artists of this caliber -- but horror fans sure could use talents like this more often.
*In the thankless wife or girlfriend role, of course, not in anything which would actually make use of her talent, thank you very much Naomi Watts for trailblazing this inevitable career path.
NOTE: I got to see this one early cuz I'm a big shot, life is dope and do dope shit etc. But this time I got out in front of the actual release and it took me a whole month to write up my review, meaning posting this is going to more or less coincide with this one hitting theaters. Go see it Nov 28 at a theater marginally near you if you live in the United States in a major city
NOTE #2: This review is dedicated to Yvonne and Nathan, who heroically gave up their tickets so I could check this out despite the unexpectedly sold-out screening!! You da real MVP. Without you my life would be less dope and I would definitely do less dope shit.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!
The Hunt For Dread October