Sunday, November 30, 2014

Take A Look, It's In A Book

For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie David, Noah Wiseman, Benjamin Winspear
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The hype machine is an insatiable monster more devastating than any horror villain. And the Australian psychological shocker The Babadook has been its victim for the past couple months, receiving rave reviews and accolades with many critics proclaiming it as the scariest movie of the year. Many audience members are bound to be disappointed because the film sold to them isn't quite what they will receive. 

This is a massive shame because, much like The Exorcist (a victim of the even more deadly "scariest movie of all time" hype), The Babadook is a downright fantastic horror film with nuance and insurmountable tension. By a first-time director who is also a woman, no less! It's a low budget masterwork that will chill your spine to sub-zero temperatures so severe that Walt Disney himself will be thawed before you ever feel warm again. It's easy to love. But it is a more subtle, understated horror than the reviews make it sound.

No, you won't be jolting out of your seat during The Babadook. You likely won't have nightmares after your screening. You may not even be "scared" for a single frame of the 93 minute run time. But that isn't a detraction. The Babadook is more insidious than that. Instead of throwing all its energy into startling the viewer, it gets into the back of your mind and starts slowly squeezing, squeezing, squeezing until you want to scream "Make it stop!" In fact, I've never seen a movie in my life that I more dearly wished to be over, to end the screaming torment of the mind.

And there goes the hype machine again. The Babadook has that way about it. Of wiggling itself into the deep crevasses of your brain cavity and peeking out over the edge, daring you to love it. It's hard not to. And once the dust settles, people will see the film for what it is: a tiny film with a minuscule budget that borrows more tropes than it creates. But The Babadook synthesizes these elements into the best possible iteration of itself that it could be within those constraints.

With all the trauma that that implies.

Many people are eager to forgive an indie movie for its flaws, stating that due to the limitations of the budget it couldn't be exactly what it wanted to be. This is a rare example of a film that achieves its exact intention to great success, but it is of necessity a smaller, more intimate affair. At certain (few) points, I do wish that the intentions were slightly larger with a budget to match, but The Babadook deserves no pity. It is shrill, taut, adventurous, visually stunning, and one of the best horror films of the year, "scary" or not.

It tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a young mother who works at a nursing home. She struggles to care for her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) - in every sense of the word. Raising him is a chore due to his shrill disobedience, and his very existence is a grim reminder of the loss of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), who died in a car crash on the way to the hospital when Amelia was in labor.

As she faces the challenge of dealing with a lifetime of raising a child she's not sure she wants to have, a mysterious pop-up storybook appears on her shelf, telling the tale of one Mr. Babadook, a monster who sneaks into kids' bedrooms during the night wearing a friendly disguise, before gobbling them up. Naturally Samuel doesn't quite want to sleep after reading it, and over the next few weeks his constant bleating about the monster drives his mother crazy. When strange happenings begin, well, happening around the house, is it Mr. Babadook after her son's soul? Or is it something far more sinister inside Amelia's own mind?

Mind you, I think we'd all go a little bananas after finding this on our doorstep.

The answer to this question is far less obvious than in Oculus, which set up a fantastic Haunted Mirror vs. Damaged Girl plot before quickly spinning into Yeah OK There's Ghosts Let's Eat A Light Bulb. It's still a good film, but The Babadook on the other hand prolongs any revelations, letting the audience marinate in psychological torment, making it a great film.

The Babadook explores an area of motherhood that pushes the boundaries of traditional cinema, even in the horror genre. Many similar films with single mother protagonists (like The Ring or New Nightmare) focus entirely on a brave woman's attempts to save the life of her child. But The Babadook fearlessly asks the question: What if the brave woman has to face this threat to her child but doesn't actually care for the little stinker all that much?

I won't spoil things by leading you through the layers of metaphor involved in this process, though I could - and might - write an essay on it at a later date because that's how delicious the subtext is to chew on.

Yummy yummy childr- metaphors.

The beauty of The Babadook is that, in the midst of this daring tale of child rearing gone wrong, it combines age-old tropes of the genre into new meanings. Whether its things that go bump in the night, or bugs that appear where the patently shouldn't be, the horror of this horror film comes from how its events are depicted, not what they actually are.

The film's brilliant use of editing and sound design hammer the audience over and over, even if the scene is something as simple as watching TV or going to the doctor. Whether it's amplifying normal sounds by a thousand percent or creating an entirely new sonic experience for a familiar sound, the audio pummels the senses, battering the ears into submission. And the rhythm of the editing is thoroughly modern, using smash cuts and abrupt halts in music as well as alternating between smooth, swooping shots and quick 'n dirty choppiness.

This erratic pattern keeps viewers on their toes, all the while slowly turning the dial to Boil. By the end of a whirlwind scene, the sound and fury is enough to shake tears out of one's eyes through pure, unmodulated power. Not to knock the actors, who are brilliant (even the kid, thankfully), but even Essie David's door-busting performance is no match for the pure cinema of the best moments of the film.

The Babadook is an exercise in tension, preferring to create prolonged, unbearable pressure rather than momentary frights.

Although closets are never not scary.

The Babadook does have its share of flaws, though they are extremely minor. It gets a little pacy in the first act, and it has a touch of Third Act Syndrome when the finale unspools with a "kitchen sink" mentality. But this is not a film to miss. It's improbable that everyone will be able to see it in theaters thanks to its unsettlingly brief visit to our shores, but I urge any horror hounds to check this out on their nearest VOD outlet. 

Since, presumably, you are using the Internet to read this, the nearest one is in your hands. Close out this page and watch The Babadook right now. Don't expect the film to shock you out of your Armani socks (since you're reading this, you're obviously the epitome of fashion and taste), but appreciate it for its clever, nauseatingly nerve-wracking ability to twist your soul apart.

TL;DR: The Babadook is so tense, you should print out coupons for a Deep Tissue Massage before going into the theater.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1294


  1. I'm so excited about this that I'm considering going through what I strongly expect to be the hell of trying to get it through iTunes.

    It's funny you say that the protagonist is a potentially worse parent than Rachel in The Ring. I just happened to watch that very movie and one of the things I really enjoyed about it is how that kid has very nearly the worst parents he possibly could, without crossing the line into outright neglect or abuse. "Do I feed you? Do I tell you that I love you? Can you read? You're fine, now I've got to go fight a ghost and leave death tapes lying around that I won't even warn you about." (Actually, maybe it does cross the line into neglect.)

    P.S.: I bought my socks from Wal-Mart. I'm a disappointment, I know.

    1. If it helps, I've been in the same Hanes socks for years. And yeah, she's even worse than DeathTape McGee over there.

  2. This movie was so freaking that it haunted me my whole night.