Thursday, December 18, 2014
The Babadook Review - Fine, Suspenseful, Women-Centric
In September, one of my roommates, a film student and horror fan, made a point of telling me that the movie was great, used highly-effective suspense to generate most of its scares. And damned if she wasn't dead right on that score. The Babadook is very scary, but it doesn't use gore to achieve that goal. It grounds the growing sense of dread and fear in the characters and the situations around them.
When I started reading the critical response in November what stood out was how uniformly glowing the reviews were. And I swear that skimming through them didn't clue me in to what really made my jaw drop: researching for this review last week, I learned the film is by Jennifer Kent, a first-time writer-director.
Genuinely good horror films are a bit rare these days to begin with. Great debut entries aren't common in any genre, much less horror. But a foreign debut indie horror film written and directed by a woman? Rock the f--k on. Given my longtime support of indie film, horror, and women in the industry, I was bound to see this - and to tell everyone to see it, too.
Another point in this movie's favor: the story centers on a woman. And while it's not rare for the horror genre to feature a female lead, women in their early 40's are generally not represented enough in movies - even better, she's a single mother. I've seen a lot of articles over the last two years about women being underrepresented, in front of the camera and behind the scenes, so I'm thrilled to promote an excellent film that features both.
So what's the story? Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow with a hyperactive 4-5 year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Woken from a nightmare about her husband's death, Amelia carefully shows her son that there are, in fact, no monsters in any part of the house. Yet, from the beginning, we see that this loving home has a lot of underlying tension - when Sam leans in for a very tight hug, his mother stops him as if she feels offended, or threatened.
From this cold open onwards, we get to see what life is like in this household. Mom is just barely holding it together, working long shifts as a nurse in elder care. Samuel is loving, but he's constantly inventing dangerous toys that he brings to school. While her regular spell of bad dreams must make things rough, caring for an energetic child who might hurt himself or others is utterly exhausting and quite demoralizing.
Things change when Samuel asks for a new bedtime story, and pulls out a rich red book that's unfamiliar to both mother and child: The Babadook. Amelia starts to read the words aloud, turning over the charcoal-rubbed pages and helping her son with the occasional pop-up panel. And then the story gets really really dark.
The introduction of this book kicks everything into overdrive. Now, the monster-obsessed Samuel is dead-certain that the Babadook is after his mother. The boy gets into even more trouble at school, while the woman is stretched to the very limit of her patience and intelligence and love.
One of the finest aspects of this film is that it doesn't dispel the incredible tension by spelling everything out. The biggest weakness is that we're not given much information about "the rules" behind this supposed monster - and yet I'll accept wondering how the Babadook finds his victims or how he's stopped if it means I don't have to sit through awkward exposition.
Another fine point here is that Ms. Kent's movie stays focused on its characters, their lives, and the way their minds work. Amelia clearly suffers some amount of mistrust or resentment against her son. Samuel meanwhile, might be possessed, he might have a health condition, or he might just be a weird, yet typical, kid.
As the plots play out and life gets worse for this pair, they scramble to keep things afloat... While the situation at home steadily crumbles and becomes even more fraught with negative energy.
Throughout its running time, I couldn't pull my eyes away from the screen. Babadook is a visually stunning movie, with perfect composition matched by great color palettes wherein the daytime scenes are vivid and bright, while the nighttime scenes present a clash of light tones that only slightly soften unfathomably-deep darkness.
In daytime, however, the "warmth" bleeds out of the frame during difficult scenes, much in the way that positive scenes set at night have a certain visual glow. There are moments where you can barely see, and instead of a sign of bad camerawork, it works to engage and scare the viewer. This pic just displays an excellent command of image.
Babadook also boasts great sound design. It's used to great effect, and adds a lot to the frightening atmosphere. One of the friends with me rarely watches horror, but she didn't close her eyes... She chose instead to cover her ears, because the subtle and stereoscopic use of noise was freaking her out. Niiiice.
Essie Davis is just amazing. She's exceptional in this role, and if she's not popular in her native Australia, I hope this movie does the trick. She's a beautiful woman, but the makeup does a nice job of showing a range of looks - from "just woke up" to "I finally get to go to a party." It's her naturalistic and credible work that sells the audience, but (like her gender or the difficulties of being a single parent) her physicality is never ignored by the narrative or the camera.
Amelia is a real woman, living an unglamorous life and doing the best that she can for her fractured family. She's really just limping along, but you can tell that she's a good, loving person who has more baggage to deal with than she can process. It's not only authentic, it's relatable.
Noah Wiseman is excellent as Samuel, the tiny terror. It's unbelievable that he can act so well at such a young age, but the kid is damn good. Whether it's his fear, his affection, or the silly little dances that he does when he plays, it's hard not to love the little bugger... Even if, at the same time, his behavior is like an advertisement against parenthood.
Extra points are awarded to Ms. Kent for actually making the titular book into its own character. The images are creepy the same way a lot of Tim Burton images are creepy, but they are played with much more intensity and genuine malevolence. Every time you see the book, it's like a bell being rung, each peal a sound that signifies impending doom. You'll wince every time you see that fine red cover.
The house is also a member of this small cast, as the location was used very well. It's easy to tell when a film does that, because you feel like you actually know the space. The setting doesn't feel overused (or is if the film had no budget to do better), and yet you feel a sort of intimacy with it. I'd say the look of the places and its use are key to getting the audience immersed in the story.
By the time the credits rolled, I had been properly scared at least a dozen times. The four friends that went with me also looked wound up, and thoroughly-impressed. And it's no wonder: every aspect of the production, from script to score, was superb. This is the kind of high-quality fare that makes you so happy they you took the time to see a movie in the theater.
I cannot recommend The Babadook highly enough. If you're a fan of suspenseful horror films - and if you want to support independent and/or films centered around (and created by) women - I suggest you check it out asap. And try to see it in a moviehouse if you can; this one deserves every penny it can earn.