Release: Friday, November 28, 2014 (limited)
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
It’s official. I’m in love with horror once again.
It’s some kind of feat the hype surrounding Jennifer Kent’s much-acclaimed horror film has gotten to the point where it feels like watching the ‘scariest film in years’ this far into 2015 is, yeah, a little like you showing up to a birthday party a few hours late and profusely apologizing. The apologies are accepted, but the fact is you’re still late.
The Babadook isn’t a particularly original film. It’s a tale of possession dressed in the decay of William Friedkin’s slow-burning and dread-inducing 1973 masterpiece, only this time the beast is somehow of an even more inexplicable nature. It’s about a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) doing her best to cope with life after the shocking death of her husband Oskar several years ago and having to deal with the increasingly erratic behavior of her six-year-old son Samuel (a young and brilliant Noah Wiseman) who is convinced something is haunting their house. When the two come across a children’s book named Mister Babadook one evening, Amelia isn’t convinced it is appropriate bedtime material but Noah insists she read it to him. Strange occurrences ensue with steadily increasing frequency.
Of its many borrowings from memorable horror of the past, Kent’s nail-biter features creepy shadows, fragile and/or susceptible characters, tense atmosphere and an intimate setting that traps feelings of isolation and paranoia with remarkable precision. And the description ‘haunted house feature’ wouldn’t be too far off-base, either. Goodness knows there is more than a heaping helping of those kinds of horrors out there, and while not all are even close to being legitimate wastes of your time the catch-all term almost seems to automatically dismiss the hype surrounding this Australian phenomenon as overzealous. Even prefabricated.
On a performance basis alone, The Babadook soars above its contemporaries. Wiseman embodies a child with severe behavioral issues so as to confuse the strategy of casting with happening upon an actual child with these kinds of problems on the very streets of Adelaide. His character may well work on your every last nerve but you can be sure he takes a much bigger toll on his mother. And Davis is sublime in the role of a bereaved woman now sleepwalking through life as a middle-aged widow working as an orderly at a retirement home. Because the tandem are so convincing Kent never allows us the luxury of relaxation in her world. There’s no solace in this drab environment, even with kind neighbors like Barbara West’s Mrs. Roach, who suffers from Parkinson’s, or an empathetic colleague in Daniel Henshall’s Robbie.
But Kent isn’t content with settling with a performance-based thriller. Even if this is shot on a relatively minimalist budget you’d never know it because the environment compels — much like the power of Father Merrin’s exorcist rites compels you — to keep watching. Transitions featuring a sprawling tree outside the house reinforce the threat of something sinister lurking in the house; they also distract effectively from the fact that the physical disturbances may not be the worst things Amelia and Samuel have to deal with. Kent’s most impressive feat is the ability to ratchet up the tension in terms of the things we can actually trust in Amelia and Samuel’s surroundings. What is real and what isn’t? What is in their heads and what is actually in the house?
That oft-underutilized technique — the power of suggestion — is employed with devastating yet completely enthralling effect in the the film’s harrowing final twenty or so minutes. It is in this sequence of low light and high anxiety we are exposed not to what that ever-elusive beast really is but rather the stuff that Jennifer Kent is made of. She is a master of horror in the making, teasing imagery from the likes of The Exorcist and The Shining in a way that both elevates her film’s seriousness of purpose and honors the work of the legends of a tenebrous past. Buckets of blood aren’t necessary for creating one of the most chilling finales in recent memory (yes I am encompassing all genres in that remark, and yes I am talking about the moment all the way up until credits roll).
In a time where the genre has begun dabbling in grotesque torture, in animals-as-predatory villains, in real world disasters-as-backdrops in order to entertain increasingly niched audiences it’s becoming harder to find films that like to keep things simple. Stories that speak to our concerns with specific aspects of mundane existence — in this case, the challenge(s) of single parenthood — and slowly modifying that reality until it becomes something truly twisted. That’s the formula for really good horror: making the threat seem real. The Babadook is an unqualified success in that regard. It’s an instant classic.
Recommendation: Though I can understand that after awhile such lofty praise can become a bit intimidating or off-putting, and it sure seems that the above rave review won’t help quell the urge to disbelieve, I personally am in favor of it. I didn’t think I would be. With incredibly strong performances and a memorable, demented creature at the center of it all, The Babadook should prove to be at least an entertaining 90 minutes. However if you’re strictly anti-horror, there’s probably nothing it can do nor I can say to sway you. But as a former skeptic of horror myself, this has restored my faith in the genre for sure.
Running Time: 92 mins.
Quoted: “You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy.”
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