Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Babadook

I do not remember the last time I reacted to a movie the way I reacted to The Babadook (2014). Every time the titular boogeyman was on screen, I physically got chills all over. When I say this is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen, that's not hyperbole.

Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mother in Australia whose young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) has behavioral problems so severe, he's all but tossed out of school almost as soon as the movie begins. Amelia lost her husband in car accident on the day Sam was born, and she never really got over it. One night, for bedtime, Sam has his mother read him a book she's never seen before about a creature known as "The Babadook," a shadowy being that preys on children and lives in the darkness. Sam, of course, becomes convinced the Babadook is real and starts causing more trouble for the overworked, under-rested Amelia, who gradually becomes convinced the Babadook is real.

First off, hats off to Esse Davis, who gives one of the best genre performances in ages, the kind of performance that would receive an Oscar nomination if the world was just. She's a loving mother, committed to her son, willing to do anything to protect him and do what's best for him, but the stress of her job, her grief over her husband, and her son's behavioral problems are grinding her down. This is the kind of exhaustion on film that Donald Pleasance would appreciate.

Amelia becomes increasingly isolated, not so much geographically but personally, as she loses allies one by one, not to the threat of the Babadook but because they've reached the end of their rope with Amelia and Samuel: the kindly old neighbor she tells off, her sister who doesn't want Samuel around her daughter, the teachers that deem him a lost cause, and the condescending social workers. As the movie progresses, she finds herself questioning her sanity and her very grip on reality. At the end, when she "lets the Babadook in" so to speak, in essence becoming possessed by it, the transformation is both convincing and terrifying.

That's really the strength of the film. The Babadook is a metaphorical monster somehow brought to life, all that resentment, loneliness, fear, and exhaustion given a dark form. It's a very real adult fear - losing a child and being consumed with grief - that the film plays on. Interestingly enough, The Babadook also plays on childhood fears, not just of the boogeyman in the closet and under the bed but of losing a parent. Sam tells Amelia how he loves her and he'll protect her from the Babadook. In a way, the Babadook is fear of losing his mother to another, mysterious, dark man, perhaps his fear that his mother will re-marry or find a boyfriend and forget about him.

The direction of the film, by writer/director Jennifer Kent, is top notch. I hope she contributes more to the genre. The Babadook is kept to the shadows and no explanation is offered for what it is or where it came from. Early on, the creature is depicted in a children's book with pop-up illustrations, and somehow this is incredibly creepy and ominous in its foreshadowing. We never get a solid look at it; Kent keeps it in the shadows with only faint outlines to suggest its shape. It resembles the classic silent film killer Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Calgary if he wore a top hat and had Freddy Kruger-like claws on both hands. Other times, all we hear is its knocking or it coldly whispering its name (be sure to watch this with a good sound system because it will keep you on edge).

The film also has tremendous use of light and shadows. Amelia and Sam's home at night is filled with so many dark corners and nooks that are so pitch black, anything could be hiding in there and probably is. In the climactic confrontation in the bed room, when the Babadook suggests its true form with two elongated arms that span with the width of the room, the darkness seems to go on forever, like an endless tunnel into oblivion.

Faults? Sure, there are some. The resolution, to a degree, depends on the knot-tying and trap-setting abilities of a 7-year-old, and that's a little hard to buy, even if it is established throughout the film that he has some sort of aptitude for building weapons. Early on, you're also probably going to wish Amelia slaps the boy silly during any one of his multiple tantrums (and there are quite a few).

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