Monday, October 05, 2015
13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: The Babadook
Of all the things ‘The Babadook’ gets right – and let’s just call it from the outset: ‘The Babadook’ is a film of such intuitive psychological intelligence and aesthetic filmmaking confidence that it’s astounding to realize that it’s a debut feature – perhaps its greatest strength is that writer/director Jennifer Kent isn’t scared to structure what is essentially a two-hander around two often unlikeable (and sometimes outright fucking detestable) characters, one of them a young child.
Indeed, it would be fair to say ‘The Babadook’ documents the unhealthiest mother/son relationship this side of Oedipus Rex. Mrs Bates and young Norman are a well-adjusted picture of fulsomeness compared to young widow Amelia (Essie Davis) and her demanding 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A floaty, surreal opening sequence establishes the dynamic immediately: a heavily-pregnant Amelia was on her way to hospital when a car accident robbed her of her husband and left her with, to put it mildly, mixed feelings towards her child.
Fast forward and Amelia is working a thankless job, struggling to cope with Samuel’s neediness, trying to suppress a rollercoaster of grief/resentment/hormonal overdrive, and stoically withstanding the vaguely contemptuous pity/condescension that seems to be the standard operating procedure of the smug housewives who constitute Amelia’s poor alternative for a social life. She’s about two sleeping pills away from a nervous breakdown, and it doesn’t help that Samuel is forever tinkering away down in the basement, creating little gizmos, unearthing his late father’s possessions, and subconsciously modeling a persona on that of a man he never knew.
Kent takes her time establishing all this, almost dissecting every interaction between two people who don’t, for all that they’re bonded by blood and loss, actually like each other all that much. To Amelia, Samuel is an annoyance; an incessant drain on her patience. To Samuel, for reasons that only become apparent after Kent pulls a mid-film POV switch that’s as subtle as it is audacious, Amelia is someone he desperately needs to protect even though his motivations are underpinned by fear.
And even contriving that deliberately vague and not particularly elegant sentence, I start to wonder if I’m giving too much away. ‘The Babadook’ is grueling; upsetting; emotionally bleak. Like all the greatest horror movies, it roots its sense of horror into something all too human, all too real, all too immediately recognizable. A few nights ago, at home, I was sitting in my bedroom, reading, the window open. From the street below, the caterwauling of a young child demanding attention. Said racket was superseded by a screech from the child’s mother: “Fuckin’ shurrup!” What chance for a child raised in that environment? What effects when unconditional love is stamped out by anger and vehemence? ‘The Babadook’ renders a more effectively disturbing treatment of these questions by placing Samuel in the emotional cauldron engendered not by some teenage chavette for whom a child is merely a shortcut to a benefits claim but a mature woman with a job and responsibilities whose personal circumstances and devastating loss ought to make her a centerpiece for the audience’s sympathies.
The other great success of the film is its introduction of the supernatural. One day, Samuel demands that Amelia read him not one of his usual retinue of gently improving bedtime stories, but from a book he’s found that Amelia is sure she’s never seen before. A hardback tome with sturdy covers, rough pages, childlike but gut-wrenchingly sinister woodcuts and stark minimalist prose which tells the story of a creature called (you guessed it) the Babadook. The Babadook, it turns out, fair enjoys killing people. Amelia, naturally, recoils at the book’s content (the fact that its most horrific images are incorporated as cheesy pop-ups makes it somehow worse) and hides it on a top shelf. The book returns. She throws it out. It returns. She burns the motherfucker. Whaddaya know? Can’t keep a bad book down.
From hereon in, the Babadook threads itself through the fabric of the movie: whether seen, unseen or half-glimpsed, it literally haunts the film. And it’s under the shadow of the Babadook’s pervasive presence that Kent effects her mid-film switcheroo and suddenly the audience’s perception has changed and the stakes are higher. To say much more would be a disservice to anyone yet to discover the film’s grim delights. I say “grim” advisedly, because this is one of the most emotionally bruising horror movies I’ve encountered for a while. Entire stretches of it are depressing on an Ingmar Bergman circa ‘The Silence’ or a Lukas Moodysson circa ‘Lilya 4-Ever’ level of depressing. You could strip out every vestige of the supernatural and ‘The Babadook’ would still function as a horror movie because it taps into such a morbid and emotionally raw area of the psyche.
Indeed, back-pedalling from the obvious supernatural elements might have strengthened the finale, certainly during a couple of scenes where Kent seems to doubt her own directorial style and borrows fairly obviously from the David Lynch playbook, and not least with regards to the finale which seems very stagy and suggests that an evil spirit is best confronted when you’re super-fucking-pissed-off.
Still, genuinely scary horror films are as thin on the ground as genuinely intelligent ones, and ‘The Babadook’ manages to be both. It’s also exceptionally well crafted and the performances are raw, nervy and immediate. If you only know Essie Davis as the elegant 1920s sleuth in the ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ TV show, be prepared for a revelation. And whatever Jennifer Kent directs next, prepare for one hell of movie.