Saturday, December 27, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: THE BABADOOK (2014)

(Australia - 2014)

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McEllhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Ben Winspear, Cathy Adamek, Craig Behenna, Tim Purcell. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Even before the initial appearance of a sinister monster sprung from the pages of a childrens' pop-up book, THE BABADOOK is a extraordinarily unsettling film that constantly threatens to suffocate the audience with despair and dread. Making her feature debut, Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent has created an instant cult item that not only avoids genre trends, but utilizes relatively primitive, low-budget visual effects in a stylish and effective way and still manages to leave most modern horror films and the so-called "masters of horror" who made them in the dust. The film centers on Abigail (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). They live in a gray, dreary house with their dog Bugsy, and it doesn't take long to conclude that there are problems in this family. Abigail is raising Samuel on her own, as her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear) was killed in a car accident...driving her to the hospital to have Samuel. A former magazine journalist who settled for the 9-to-5 world after becoming a single mother, Abigail is barely hanging on to her nursing job at a retirement home, and Samuel is convinced there's a monster in the house and has started constructing homemade weapons to combat it and protect his mother. Things get worse when a pop-up book about a boogeyman called Mister Babadook suddenly appears, and the story's promise of "If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook" traumatizes Samuel to the point he starts having seizures when he believes the Babadook is nearby and approaching him.

All of this does nothing to alleviate an already tense situation between mother and son. Davis turns in a fearless, Oscar-worthy performance in the kind of role that would be tough for most Hollywood A-listers to pull off. As the film works its way to the introduction of the Babadook, Abigail is shown to be a mom who really doesn't like being a mom. She also doesn't seem to like her kid all that much. The sound of his voice makes her wince and grind her teeth. Make no mistake, Samuel is one of the most irritating, helpless, and perpetually needy children that the movies have ever offered. Abigail is filled with such sorrow and resentment of her beloved husband's death and the current state of her life that, however unintentional it may be, she clearly blames Samuel for the direction things have taken. Samuel is always demanding her constant attention, and she can't even enjoy some downtime with her vibrator without the boy barging into her room, craving more attention. It's a bold move on Kent's part to almost openly encourage the audience to dislike Samuel, though it's all part of the design once the Babadook is "let in" and seems to take possession of Abigail. Yes, there's a possession element to THE BABADOOK, but this is not another EXORCIST knockoff.  In less capable hands, yes, it would be. But Kent is interested in more than just horror formula, though she does borrow another bit from THE EXORCIST in the way that the malevolent force is allowed into a tumultuous situation, in this case a household mired in co-dependence and dysfunction. The Babadook itself can be seen as a symbol of Abigail's rage and grief and the mental illness that has resulted from it or was there all along--we don't know. Note how Samuel has fits when the "Babadook" is near, almost like it's the paralyzing fear of the person his mother becomes during these episodes.  Is she bipolar? Schizophrenic? Or just unable to get over the death of her husband, a man she obviously cherishes more than the child he fathered, a constant reminder of the void in her life that cannot be filled?

There's some ambiguity in that sense, at least until some clarity is provided in the final scenes. THE BABADOOK is so terrifying at times that you almost forget the titular figure (played in some shots by prop effects tech Tim Purcell) is barely in it. The Babadook will no doubt become the iconic Freddy and Pinhead of its generation, and rightly so, but the figure itself is seen only fleetingly. It doesn't need to be seen that much, really, especially once he's let into Abigail, in a possessive sense. Kent is thankfully uninterested in standard-issue jump scares and gross-out moments and more focused on character and story with sporadic shots that give you the willies. She lets the story build very deliberately, allowing us to get to know Abigail and Samuel, and it's a smart move, though it wouldn't work were it not for the stellar performances of Davis and young Wiseman. As terrific as Wiseman is--and he masters the extremely difficult move of winning back your sympathy after spending the first half of the film establishing Samuel in the unappealing ways possible--the success of THE BABADOOK rests mostly on Davis' shoulders. It's an astonishing performance, physically and emotionally draining, and in a just world, would be getting significant attention during the upcoming awards season, but it'll never happen because it's a horror movie with a silly title. And it's not just in her raging and her bitterness toward Samuel, but also in the little, fleeting moments of peace and happiness that seem almost heartbreaking, whether she's taking off work early to have some time alone and getting an ice cream cone at the mall, or watching her elderly neighbor (Barbara West) drink tea and laugh at a movie she's watching on TV, quiet moments of leisure that are completely alien to her. Richly-textured, gut-wrenching, often uncomfortable (if Mike Leigh ever made a horror movie, it would probably end up looking a lot like this), and scary as hell, THE BABADOOK is not just one of the top horror offerings to come along in some time, but it's also one of the very best films of 2014.

1 comment:

  1. If you want another surprise, watch an episode of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix. You'll hardly recognize that the titular lead is also Essie Davis, who is now officially my favorite actress. This woman is phenomenal.