Friday, December 19, 2014

The Babadook Movie Review

It might seem strange to recommend a horror movie as something that every parent should see and pay close attention to, but The Babadook, the feature debut from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, is a treatise on the aspects of parenting that people tend not to talk about. It is a sort of psychological horror film clearly inspired by and borrowing from Nosferatu as equally as The Exorcist, Halloween, and even A Nightmare on Elm Street.

A single mother of a six-year old boy, still coping (barely) with the death of her husband on the day her son was born, is terrorized by an entity known as the Babadook, whose down-stretched arms and long claws are straight out of F.W. Murnau’s classic silent-era vampire film. The Babadook makes its first appearance in a strange children’s book that threatens bad feelings and sinister omens. After that, the boy Samuel (a very good young actor named Noah Wiseman), starts claiming to see the Babadook. All kids “see” monsters, but Samuel also has physiological responses to the attacks. Meanwhile his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis, channeling the harrowed psychological horror of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby), who at first reasonably refuses to entertain the notion that such a creature actually exists, begins having visions of shadows creeping through her bedroom or cockroach infestations behind her refrigerator.

Even she can’t sleep without pulling the covers over her head and waiting for morning. But in this movie, terror isn’t kept at bay by daylight. Amelia begins unraveling at the seams. She can’t sleep, she pulls her son out of school, which draws the attention of Australia’s social services. She doses Samuel with tranquilizer pills and generally mistreats him with verbal abuse after she reaches wits end for lack of sleep.

We’re so accustomed to horror movies that have a main character begging to be believed, but thought to be crazy only to be vindicated I the end that we assume something similar here. But Kent’s story is deeply layered and she’s working at several themes, only one of which is the difficulty of keeping it together when really what you want to do is pitch your child against a wall. Surely all parents, especially single parents, have these feelings, but it’s taboo to admit it. Parents, mothers in particular, are supposed to be selfless and loving. They are supposed to adore the experiences of motherhood at all costs. Sometimes, however, you just need to sleep or at least have some quiet.

Beyond that, Kent is building a story that illustrates what happens when we allow our own emotions to terrorize us or when we lock the hurt away in a basement never to acknowledge its existence. Psychological pain and torment must be discussed, Kent is saying, else it should manifest itself as real terror and physical harm. What looks at first glance to be a story of a boy who is deeply troubled, turns out to be about a woman who has no effective support network, possibly the result of her own refusal to accept it. Evidence suggests that the people around her are trying to help, including a colleague, the kindly old woman next door, and even those social services representatives. But to Amelia’s eyes most of them look like threats to the caged life she’s developed for her and her son.

Kent is well-studied in the art of the great horror films. Her eye for framing is impeccable. She composes shots that draw your eye to the edges of the screen in anticipation of the terrors lurking beyond. But it’s the film’s use of sound that impresses most. The sound effects and music cues usually make or break a horror film. Kent uses near-silence interrupted by faint breezes and creaks and then disrupts everything with scratches, knocks, and raspy-voiced intonations. This is one of the most terrifying movies of recent years. And the production design suggests a disconnected feeling of time and place. The house’s interiors feel vaguely Victorian – all wood and creaky floorboards, spare d├ęcor, gray and blue palette, and creepy old closets and wardrobes.

The Babadook is one of the most promising debuts of any writer-director in the last decade. Kent has the ability to go on to bring back a genre that has become predictable and stale too often. We should await her second film with bated breath.

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