Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "The Babadook"

Director: Jennifer Kent
Runtime: 89 minutes

Of all childhood memories, being read to sleep at night is among the most cherished and sentimental. It's a unification of parent and child, in which the former guides the latter on a journey - simple or complex - that induces a sense of wonder. No matter how dark things get, the parent's role as narrator serves as a gentle cloak of protection. Unless you live in the world of The Babadook, Aussie director Jennifer Kent's simultaneously creepy and touching ghost story about a children's book with a dark side.

Tales of the supernatural often confine themselves to one of two questions: is it real? If so, how do we get rid of it? The Babadook plays with both inquiries, entwining the answers to create a much richer horror story than one usually finds at the movies. The titular creature, a figure in a black hat with long arms and knife-like fingers, isn't just some random spirit out to terrorize some poor saps. Kent has given her monster (whether it's real or not) a motivation that connects it to her two protagonists. A ghost or demon is bad enough, but things only get worse if said creature is after you and only you.

There has long been a link in stories between ghosts and those who have endured a tragic loss. For single mom Amelia (Essie Davis), her brush with tragedy is chained to what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. On the way to the hospital to give birth to her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), Amelia's husband is killed in a car accident. Six years later, the young boy is a trouble maker obsessed with crafting weapons and traps. This doesn't make things too easy on Amelia, who has given up her career as a writer to take a dreary nursing job to make ends meet. Regardless of how bad things can get, at least mother and child can bond at bedtime by reading a simple story. 

That is, until Sam forces Amelia to read a book neither of them realized was in the house, about a certain Mr. Babadook. The images are creepy, and the story ends with a death threat (in rhyme, no less), which gives Amelia the creeps. Even after Amelia hides the book from Sam, the boy won't stop talking about Mr. Babadook, insisting that he's trying to get into their house. Mom, obviously, requires more convincing than an admittedly eerie picture book.

Though The Babadook is quite brief (less than 90 minutes sans credits), Kent takes a gradual, restrained approach to the supernatural theatrics. While it's clear that something is amiss, the screenplay avoids the usual cheap jump scares. No birds fly into windows, and no glasses or plates suddenly smash to the floor. The only cliche that Kent uses are flickering lights, and even these are kept to a minimum. The director tightens the film's grip carefully, setting up Amelia and Sam's relationship properly before delving into what's going bump in the night. It's an approach that more modern horror films, even good ones, could learn from.

For there is a fundamental difference between horror and terror, especially when it comes to narrative. To put it simply, one flees in terror, but watches in horror (horror is often linked to awe in 18th century British philosophy). Ms. Kent's understanding of this difference is part of what enables The Babadook to hold one's gaze without cheap tricks. The Babadook is more often tense than it is actually scary, which is hardly a bad thing. In demanding that we stay focused on the screen, rather than prepare to flinch at any given moment, Kent draws us deeper into the supernatural and ordinary conflicts that she has so delicately juxtaposed.

As annoying as Sam can be, his relationship with his mother is the true driving force of the story. Sam struggles with being an outcast, while Amelia is forced to cope with the catastrophic ways in which her life has been derailed. The family's house is not a comforting or place. It's merely a gloomy wall between the oppressive, condescending outside world and Amelia and Sam's inner turmoil. Wiseman is solid, and instills just the right amount of panic when required. 

The real discovery of The Babadook, besides Kent of course, is Ms. Davis. The actress has plenty of films under her belt, but this is one of those rare horror films that is also a fine showcase for a performer. It's easy to write horror victims as panicky screamers, but Davis' Amelia has much more humanity. She is lonely, worn down, and often at wit's end as she tries to raise her son. Throw in Mr. Babadook, and it's enough to push her to the edge. Whether scolding her son or eerily taking on some of the Babadook's qualities, Davis is excellent in the role, giving 21st century horror a worthy heir to Mia Farrow's Rosemary Woodhouse. 

Horror films that play with the idea of unseen intruders often lose something once the supernatural aggressor takes center stage. Clearly working on a modest budget, Kent and her technical collaborators have done a fantastic job of teasing the Babadook without putting it on screen for too long and diminishing the impact. The Babadook is largely kept to the shadows, enabling the creature to retain a menacing sense of mystery even after the film flashes us a few full glimpses. In keeping the creature's goal tied to Amelia and Sam's story, Kent has created a cinematic hybrid that demands to be taken seriously as a tale of supernatural invasion and a look at how people cope with loss. Few things are more unsettling than those threats that only have eyes for us.

Grade: B+

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