“The Babadook” (2014)
A single mother struggles to raise her troubled son, who claims a mysterious entity named the Babadook has settled in their home.
Category: Horror, Independent, Thriller
Starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman / Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
Welcome back to Poe’s Picks. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I decided a new method of choosing movies was in order because I was suffering from “more time searching, less time watching.” (My doctor has since prescribed me a few remedies to soothe the pain.)
Thankfully, I’m going to live and continue to do this wonderful blog you’ve all grown accustomed to and will be choosing movies via dart board. I will post several genres on paper and a few wild-card picks and attach them to a dart board, subsequently hurling a dart at the board to decide my next film. I promise, no roommates will be harmed in the process. Well, maybe.
But enough small talk; it’s review time.
“The Babadook” is a horror film unlike any I’ve ever seen. Amelia (Essie Davis) is on her way to birth of her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) when she and her husband endure a horrific car accident, killing him but sparing Amelia and the unborn Samuel. Years pass and Samuel is now an energetic, motor-mouth six-year-old boy who cannot sleep. And even Amelia has sleep issues of her own: between her job at a nursing home and caring for the rambunctious Samuel, she can barely sleep a wink. Samuel refuses to sleep in his room and can only be put to bed by the comfort of Amelia reading a children’s storybook.
One night, Samuel decides they will read a large, red book with a mysterious hooded figure on the cover titled “The Babadook.” Amelia has no recollection of ever seeing or buying the book, but Samuel tells her he simply found it with the rest of his books. We soon realize the book is the furthest thing from sleep-inducing: “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…,” Amelia reads. Did I mention it’s a pop-up book? Horrified, Amelia continues to read the book because that’s what people in horror movies do when they find books possibly pertaining to the undead. Samuel soon begins to lash out even more than usual and claims the Babadook has arrived to kill them both and make their home his home.
I cease to continue because, like all horror movies, most of it is better left unspoiled. “The Babadook,” however, is nothing like most horror movies and belongs in rare company of recently great horror films, alongside “The Conjuring,” “Sinister” and “It Follows.” Set and shot in Australia, writer and director Jennifer Kent lays a perfect feminine tone, as almost all the characters in the film are women. Many horror films suffer from bad set design, but “The Babadook” does wonders with lighting and color, making it feel like the walls are closing in on the characters and the audience.
Speaking of which, performances from the two leads are quite strong. We sympathize with Davis’ character, and although her mood fluctuates throughout the film, it never rises to absurdity or melodrama. She’s spot on. Wiseman, however, steals the show. I admit, I was at first rooting for the Babadook to get his hands on Samuel, but the film pulls a remarkable 180- degree turn about halfway through, and we realize there might be something to the menace in his head and home.
The Babadook himself is a sight to see or, for some, look away from. With a top hat, elongated fingers and dressed in black from head to toe, his presence is only trumped by his voice, a scratchy high-pitched sound that will make your skin crawl as he calls out “Baba… Baba… Baba… ” Kent does a great job of allowing us to see him at times when we at least expect it and other times resists the urge to make him the stereotypical dumb villain. He’s otherworldly, literally and figuratively.
I relish and appreciate a great horror movie and found myself genuinely uncomfortable watching this film, the highest compliment to a film of the genre. It’s so easy for horror films to play off predictability and stereotypical notes that prevent us from expecting the unexpected. Characters will always, to be blunt, do dumb shit in horror movies. Without a few head-scratching, “Why the hell did she do that?” moments, the genre would dwindle mightily. What concerns me in relation to this is whether or not the characters learn from their mistakes and make me want to care about them being killed, rather than becoming sacrificial slabs of meat. I cared about the characters in “The Babadook,” and that speaks volumes to all involved in making it.
Between the “Saw” series and anything Eli Roth, the last decade or so has been awash in torture porn, gore-infested films that only wish to make you squirm. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have films that only want to make you jump. To me, that’s not horror. Kent’s film produces dread, suffocation and an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Yes, it has a few moments of gore, but the horror in this film is psychological; it wants to get inside your head, not split it open.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about this film after it ended because it left some great interpretations and theories as to what actually happened. I discussed it with my roommates for 15 minutes following its conclusion. How many horror movies do that? Not many. This one challenges and respects the audience enough to not say, “Here comes the monster, jump!”. Instead, it’s true horror. It says, “Here’s the monster: stare it in the face.”
Until next time.
In Good Films We Trust,
Matt “Roger Ebert wishes he was half the film critic I am” Poe