Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Day 335: The Babadook

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"You can't get rid of the Babadook!"
Horror is by far the most disposable of all film genres, if for no other reason than the fact that so much of it is disposable nonsense. You could count on one hand the number of truly good horror films that have been released this decade, and another hand would just about get you all of the good horror films this century. Bearing that in mind, when a legitimately good horror film comes along, the world needs to stop and take notice, and the new Australian horror film The Babadook is one that is absolutely worth stopping, noticing, and celebrating. First time feature film director Jennifer Kent's film is an absolute masterstroke of psychological terror with a subtle undercurrent of legitimate fear of something that is truly more terrifying than any monster could ever hope to be.
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All of the best horror films have one thing in common. They are allegories for a real, concrete issue facing humanity, but they never let the allegory outweigh the scares. The fact that this balance is so difficult to achieve has led to the severe lack of great horror films, and The Babadook achieves it so effortlessly, it's almost scarier than anything in the film itself. The film borrows liberally from two of the great horror films, The Exorcist and The Shining, while also managing to be an entirely new and different kind of horror film. In fact, it borrows from those films so successfully that the comparisons only help to bolster its status as something truly great. 
In a performance that is simply stunning, Essie Davis plays Amelia, a woman struggling to hold a job and raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) on her own. Her husband was killed in a car accident en route to the hospital, but Amelia survived, delivered Samuel, and must now face the world as a single parent. The film marvelously stacks the deck against Amelia, giving her a litany of truly un-winnable situations from a son with behavioral problems, to an uncaring boss, and friends and family that are at their wits end with her. The real trouble for her and Samuel starts, however, when they find a mysterious pop-up book on the shelf one night titled "Mister Babadook." Though she quickly realizes that the book is not age appropriate for her six year old, the boy latches on to the name Babadook and begins to use it as a catch-all phrase for some sort of malevolent spirit that compels both him and his mother to act in strange and violent ways.
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Complicating matters even further are hallucinations suffered by Amelia of a physical representation of The Babadook that haunts her wherever she goes, lurking in the shadows, and waiting to overtake her. Hiding the book does no good, nor does destroying it, as it continues to turn up again on her doorstep, foretelling of a gruesome fate for both her and her son. Most of the delight in watching The Babadook comes in seeing how meticulously it's laying out a brilliant display of dominos, only to give them the slightest nudge toward a simply breathtaking finale that is certain to turn off the more casual viewers in the audience. The film is absolutely bonkers, particularly in its final twenty minutes, and those not willing to give themselves over to a crazy experience are going to throw their hands up in disbelief. 
What really and truly sells The Babadook, however, is that allegory constantly bubbling beneath the surface of the film, and giving a very extreme, but very effective, vision of what co-dependency can do to a relationship. There are likely other ways to read the film's overarching theme, but for me, the film was a powerful metaphor for the absolutely destructive nature of co-dependency, particularly between a parent and a child. Samuel relies on his mother for protection, but also thrusts himself into the "man of the house" role, telling his mother pointedly that he'll protect her from any monsters that come after her, even the dreaded Babadook himself.
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The film is fraught with tension almost from the very beginning, and Kent uses relatively low-fi methods to convey this creeping dread. Through the use of sharp editing and imagery borrowed from classic films and television shows, she creates a world that is both familiar and unsettling, keeping the audience in an almost constant state of unease. This is as white-knuckle a thriller as I've seen in some time, and Kent deserves the lion's share of praise that she's sure to get for her incredibly assured filmmaking. To watch The Babadook is to watch a film that understands the language of horror, but has enough tricks and sparks of inspiration as to feel wholly new and original. 
As I mentioned earlier, Essie Davis is absolutely sensational in the lead role, being forced to run the gamut of demonstrable emotions and then some. Though she's a familiar face to Australian audiences, she's still something of an unknown commodity to Americans, making us feel like we've been missing out on a truly incredible actress for all these years. Her work here is amazing and worthy of every single ounce of praise she can be given. Kent also asks a lot of young Noah Wiseman, and he delivers in spades, giving a revelatory performance that matches Davis is intensity and brilliance. He holds his own remarkably well, and spends the bulk of the film playing off of Davis like a pro. Kent must once more be lauded for her truly inspired casting.
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Casual horror fans, and those who have come to accept just about anything with a ghost, goblin, or zombie at the center of a film, are going to be hard-pressed to enjoy The Babadook, if for no other reason than it exploits their familiarity with the genre while simultaneously giving them something new. Those willing to give themselves over to the film, and follow it down its many twisted and gnarly paths will find themselves rewarded with one of the best genre pictures in years. If you're looking for something unique, original, and yet unsettlingly familiar, The Babadook will have you jumping for joy by the time the credits roll. While the waiting is often the hardest part when it comes to finding a film and a filmmaker that have something interesting to say, the reward is films like this one that value and appreciate their audience, and show their appreciation for that patience with something truly amazing. Give yourself over to The Babadook, you won't regret it.
GO Rating: 4.5/5


[Photos via Coming Soon]

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