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Jennifer Kent's The Babadook passes muster as a horror picture -- it's a thoroughly unpleasant ninety minutes of beautifully engineered misery and menace. Kent and her actors create an insular little world that will strike a chord with viewers that feel overwhelmed by life, even if their problems are one-tenth as drastic as this. The supernatural content wouldn't work if writer-director Kent hadn't already established a convincing world of middle-class woes - nagging inconvenience, social disharmony and the feeling of utter personal failure. Is slugging through the day's woes too much for you? You'll find a lot to identify with here. Roman Polanski showed a woman descending into madness in his superior Repulsion, and William Friedkin ventured into queasy psychosexual territory with the obscene shocks of his The Exorcist. Less artful than Polanski and more emotionally honest than Friedkin, Ms. Kent has a winner here. It gets to us through the menace of a simple children's book.
Aussie widow Amelia (Essie Davis) is more or less coping with raising her precocious son Robbie (Daniel Henshaw), who was born on the day her husband died driving her to the hospital. Cut off from most people, Amelia finds it difficult when Robbie shows signs of disturbance at school, getting into fights and threatening other children. She fears the source is her own emotional fragility. A neighbor lady helps out but too often reminds Robbie of the tragedy in his background, while Amelia's sister has found Robbie such a menace that she no longer wants her young daughter to associate with him. Amelia works in an old folks' home, taking care of hospice and Alzheimer's patients. Her weakening patience is showing in the quality of her work. Then suddenly, a children's pop-up book called "The Babadook" shows up. Amelia can't understand where it came from. Already afraid of monsters in his closet, Robbie is traumatized by the nasty book's promise of a horrible death to each and every reader. His increased violence at school gets him suspended, and his anti-social outbursts continue to scare Amelia and alienate others. Amelia destroys the book but it returns, somehow glued back together. It seems to invade her dreams, until the title character materializes as a horrid black 'thing' that crawls on the ceiling. Is it the sleeping pills her doctor has given her, or is she going mad, or is the Babadook real? Amelia loses control of her own actions, even threatening Robbie. When the hallucinations take over completely, she's confronted by a phantom version of her lost husband, surely the Babadook in disguise. He tells her that they can be together forever... if she brings him the boy.
Although it has some disturbingly gory dream images, most of The Babadook's effects jangle our nerves in more original ways. Emotional unease and discomfort are the entryways, as poor Amelia begins to wilt under the weight of sisterly criticism and her own son's disappointing behavior. For whatever reasons, Robbie is acutely disturbed over his father's death. He makes homemade weapons that get him dismissed from school. 1 He's wantonly disobedient and when he feels bad he wants to inflict the pain on others. Yet the little kid is sympathetic enough that we want him to pull through. He's neither possessed nor really evil.
Amelia's madness very much seems like demonic possession, but by the worries of the world, not a demon. As she succumbs to the misery of her failure as a wife and a mother, Amelia just lets the monsters in. She looks very much like the Melinda Dillon character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even dresses like her. The difference is that Amelia has a mean streak as well, that shows when she's confronted by a gaggle of 'other mothers' bragging about their successful home lives. The movie's horror comes less from its title monster than from the appalling way that Ameila descends into Bad Mother status, losing it entirely with Robbie as might a drug addict, or a sexual deviant. Jennifer Kent and her editor Simon Njoo assemble terrific montages of late night TV images gone mad, distorted by Amelia's mental condition. The Babadook creature invades fantasy images of Méliès and Segundo de Chomon, and bits of TV scenes from Mario Bava's Black Sabbath mirror Amelia's haunted state. The woman's having a major breakdown, and we're experiencing every moment of it.
I joke sometimes that emotionally needy urban Americans prefer their dogs and cats to people; and more than one person has told me they won't watch a film in which an animal is put in harm's way (although they have no problem with violence to people). The Babadook commits the ultimate sin in this regard, more evidence that it wasn't made here in the states. Exploitation panders to its audience and this movie doesn't do that. The horror audience nowadays wants to see twisted sex and vicious cruelty, for some reason. But I'll bet nobody wants to see a cute little dog strangled. I'll bet that gets them more than if the kid were harmed. ("Because it's innocent!")
As for The Babadook himself, I'm pleasantly surprised. He's a winner, a far more nightmarish creep-o-matic than Freddy Krueger. Nothing more than a conceptual inkblot, Mr. B. materializes first as cardboard in a nasty pop-up book. Then he manifests as nightmare images that range from charcoal-drawing phantoms to black vomit to a "Full Babby" silken-black blob monster that leaps from the ceiling. Of course Amelia is in dire mental straits at these times, which allows us to interpret everything we see as phenomena in her deranged mind. As a down-under Daughter of Horror Amelia passes her bad vibes to young Robbie, who adds his own twisted imagination and violent tendencies. One of the scariest moments is when Robbie and Amelia hug, and then hug tighter. Suddenly she pushes him away, saying, "Don't!" Did Robbie do something forbidden we can't see, or is Amelia reflexively rejecting him for some reason? Robbie will have plenty to rue from his Babadook experience, but this moment alone is the kind of trauma kids never forget.
I think the ending is very well handled, even if The Babadook is not a 'fun' horror experience. Thanks to its writer-director's fine work in all departments, it's the first really meaningful horror film I've seen in a long time. 2
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of The Babadook is a great presentation of this gloves-off horror ordeal. It seems to have been very shrewdly released last year, making the rounds of dozens of festivals before being pushed with a dynamite endorsement from William Friedkin. His judgment still means something insofar as horror pix are concerned.
The images are really carefully managed, as the inside of Amelia's old house becomes as familiar as that of Norman Bates. The sound-scape is also worth cocking an ear, to catch whatever odd noises pop up. Almost amusingly, The Babadook doesn't bother playing with "is he there, or is he not there?" tricks. The scary bastard is sure as hell there, and nobody has a chance to forget it. The high quality transfer and sound really trap us in Amelia's awful little world. 3
The extras include trailers, interviews with the filmmakers and actors and a number of themed featurettes; the PR people behind The Babadook are as good as its distributors. But the best extra is Jennifer Kent's 2006 short film Monster, in B&W and so-so quality. It's a dry run for The Babadook, going for the same kind of shocks in a few minutes' time. This lady comes from a busy career as an actress, and I hope she's able to continue directing.
Shout! Factory's packaging gets my vote for best so far of 2015 -- the dull red cover looks like the horrid Babadook book, and it opens up for a real pop-up effect. Very classy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Babadook Blu-ray
1. This is an Australian movie -- if a kid shot Robbie's dart-crossbow in a school here in the states, he'd make the national news and Amelia would probably lose custody.
2. I love the finish, which I won't describe. I WILL however tell you of a cartoon that I saw in the English PUNCH magazine as a kid and will never forget. About ten panels long, the cartoon shows a man suffering because a cartoonish (of course) demon is riding on his shoulder. It pulls at his hair; it never goes away. The man is depressed. In the last couple of panels the man has bought a little bicycle for the demon, which now rides happily alongside as the man walks. It's still there, but the burden is lifted. As in The Babadook, the solution is a matter of problem management.
3. It reminds me a bit of when in high school I delivered for a pharmacy, and briefly visited rest homes, the houses of invalids and an occasional welfare mother on the edge of oblivion. Was I open and sympathetic to my fellow human beings? No, I just wanted to drop off the pills, get the money and get the hell out of there. The Amelias that looked at my serious little face surely thought, "no help from this kid."
The Babadook deals in just that kind of misery.
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