Sunday, March 1, 2015

Letting in "The Babadook"

I was deeply, deeply apprehensive about watching the Australian horror/thriller "The Babadook," despite hearing nothing but praise for it from every corner.  The subject matter sounded right up my alley, but also like something that could hit too close to home.  I'm also one of those people who can't easily brush off the experience of certain horror media, and I had no desire to but up at 3 AM jumping at shadows for several weeks.  But I gathered up my courage and watched the thing, and I'm so glad that I did.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed single mother to six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a little boy with an overactive imagination and behavioral problems.  One night a picture book mysteriously appears in Samuel's room titled "Mister Babadook," about a dark creature who kills anyone unfortunate enough to let him into their lives.  Samuel becomes convinced the Babadook is real, and he starts acting out in worse and worse ways as a result.  The stress on an exhausted Amelia, compounded with unresolved issues about her husband's death, grows to unberable levels.  And then the Babadook comes to call.
My favorite horror films are about threats to the family unit, especially the ones that take the time to explore family dynamics and get the audience to care about its characters, like "The Shining" and "Poltergeist."  "The Babadook" is one of these, which takes its time easing us into Amelia's lonely world, where she feel trapped and isolated by the demands of motherhood.  Her struggles with her son are plenty daunting before any of the supernatural elements come into play - and it becomes clear that the monsters are really allegories for existing problems.  "The Babadook" doesn't become a traditional horror movie until the second half, and you could just as easily classify it as a febrile psychodrama in the same vein as "Repulsion" or "Black Swan."
But when it does become a horror movie, boy is it a treat.  I don't know the last horror film that I've enjoyed so much simply for its aesthetics.  The visuals and the sound design are fantastic.  I love the disturbing drawings of the Babadook book and all the various ways that the filmmakers find to keep referencing them as the movie goes on.  I love the transitions.  The soundtrack makes wonderful use of silence, muted sounds, and vocal manipulation to reflect Amelia's deteriorating mental state.  Gore connoisseurs may be a little disappointed that the movie is more disturbing than outright scary, but it does nail some key moments of nail-biting fright.  Nothing in this movie will be keeping me up at 3 AM, but some of those images are going to be staying with me for a long time.
"The Babadook" is writer/director Jennifer Kent's first feature film, and she has proven herself to be a major talent already.  I love how cleverly constructed the narrative is, the way that it plays with perception and framing.  Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman both give excellent performances that go places you wouldn't expect them to.  And I love that there's so much going on beneath the surface, how the film is an examination of guilt and grief and resentment and how a parent-child relationship can go so very, very wrong.  The horror comes from such a real, visceral place and sinks its claws in deep.
I've just counted up the number of times I've used the word "love" in this review, and I think it's safe to conclude that "The Babadook" is one of my favorites of 2014.  And I'm happily reserving it a spot on my top ten list - the one I set aside for the movie I just plain enjoyed the most.

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