The Babadook ReviewJoe Shaffer
Everyone says horror cinema is dead. They point to all of the PG-13 flicks that Hollywood is cranking out, cite the "critical consensus" from Rotten Tomatoes on each film, and then proudly exclaim their love for whatever decade their teenage years happened to fall into. They fail to consider one thing, though: that there's much, much more to horror films than whatever tripe Hollywood is currently spewing. Sometimes discovering quality movies means checking out indie offerings or shopping for your frights outside of the US, away from Hollywood and its council-generated drivel.
I need only point to one film to demonstrate what I mean: the Aussie horror flick The Babadook.
The Babadook starts off with a very human pair of characters, Amelia and her young son Samuel, who lead a less than picture perfect life. As a widow and single mother raising a rambunctious and very imaginative youngster, Amelia has been under tremendous stress. You see, Sam--who tends to bounce back and forth between utterly adorable and nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating, as children are wont to do--is not like his peers. He's gifted, perhaps even precocious in some ways, and odd beyond words. The boy is often hard at work building contraptions for the use of fending off imaginary monsters, and has a habit of frightening other children with his handiwork and constant chatter about supernatural beings. This lands Sam in enough hot water that his mother ends up pulling him from school and contemplates having his psychologically examined. Meanwhile, she attributes all of the claims of boogeymen to Samuel's erratic behavior.
...until a peculiar book appears on Sam's shelf.
"Mister Babadook," as the title reads, turns out to be a pop-up book warning its readers of a deadly, unstoppable entity who thrives on murder and mayhem, growing in power as his victims become more aware of his existence. It's not long after reading the book to Sam and traumatizing the poor child that peculiar occurrences take place around Amelia's household: lights flicker for no discernible reason, Sam becomes more unruly, and Amelia hears sharp raps on the front door, only to find that no one is there. Not long afterward, she begins to see the creature in all its hideous glory, mostly manifesting as shadows caught out of the corner of her eye. It isn't long before her psyche crumbles and Sam must fend off the beast himself...
The Babadook does not immediately assault your senses. It starts off restrained and spends most of its first half developing the main duo. The farther you advance into the story, though, the more things shift from mundane to eerie, eventually to creepy, and finally to downright nail-biting. With a solidly developed pair of characters, you eventually start to fear for their safety, but mostly you want their situation to return to some stable state so they can become something along the lines of a cohesive family. The film also eschews jump scares in favor of a tale that's not only resonant, but sticks with you long after the affair has ended.
Also, I really dig the antagonist. I appreciate that the film slowly builds to a big reveal, but doesn't make you wait until the tail end of the feature. Rather, you get a glimpse of the great monstrosity about halfway through the flick. Most of all, I enjoy that the movie doesn't fixate overmuch on the creature's origin. Rather, the film abides the age old Lovecraftian standard of playing off our fear of the unknown.
In its final stages, The Babadook unleashes its best material. That's when you'll feel yourself slide to the edge of your seat, hoping for some kind of resolution without losing one of the characters in the process. That's when actors Essie Davis (Amelia) and Noah Wiseman (Samuel) fully display their acting talents. Davis slips easily into the role of Amelia, starting off as a frazzled mother and transforming into a cold-blooded monster by the film's closing act. Wiseman delivers a wonderful performance, showing us not only the innocent and petulant aspects of children with amazing realism, but also the resourcefulness and cleverness of gifted youth. Their portrayals give their respective characters life, and in so doing help create a tense climax.
My only complaint with The Babadook is a meager one. Although I like the movie's allegory, I also feel that it becomes a tad apparent that that's what the titular monster is: a symbol for a human concept with terrifying implications. That's not to say that the movie beats its audience over the head with its material, but I still feel that certain aspects of the story, particularly in the conclusion, could be better veiled. Again, though, this is only a teensy gripe.
The Babadook is yet another movie that assures me that horror isn't dead. Hollywood may have forgotten its ways, but directors such as Jennifer Kent have shown us that there are still some directors who know how to scare the hell out of the genre's fans whilst weaving a ripping good yarn with likeable characters.
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