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Babadook - Special Edition, The
When people talk about a horror movie being "psychological", they generally mean the film plays head games with the viewer, surrounding them with the surreal. The Babadook is a psychological horror movie in the sense that it deals with the mental state of its protagonist, Amelia (Essie Davis), which slowly crumbles as the stresses and frustrations in her life pile up. Chief among the sources is Amelia's tempestuous child Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose behavior frequently pulls Amelia away from work to weather another round of disapproving looks about her child. Things take a turn for the worse when Samuel chooses a mysterious new book for his nightly bedtime story: Mister Babadook depicts a tall, grinning figure that creeps into children's rooms at night to kill them and will not go away. The character captures Samuel's imagination, then moves onto Amelia, who hears The Babadook's terrifying call -- a gurgling, throaty dook dook dook -- and becomes increasingly convinced the monster is all too real.
More than any other genre, horror movies have always provided supernatural metaphors for real-life terrors: zombies, werewolves, vampires, and serial killers all tap into the cultural subconscious, subtly changing with whatever happens to be concerning the public at large. The Babadook is unique in that the metaphor is almost stronger than the supernatural: the characters and performances are so rooted in what's going on beneath the surface that it can feel a bit strange to see those concerns translated into the ghostly Bababdook, lurking in the shadows in a long black coat and top hat. That's not a knock, just an observation about the unique tone writer / director Jennifer Kent brings to this expansion or re-envisioning of her short film, Monster. The Babadook dives into grief, depression, and anger in ways that are fascinating and deeply compelling, not to mention terrifying.
Although Kent shoots the film in a way that ensures the viewer observes Amelia objectively rather than seeing through her eyes, she creates an overwhelming empathy for the character, mostly through Samuel's behavior. Although Samuel is not an evil child, he is endlessly exasperating, displaying a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at the right moment, ignoring all of his mother's most important rules, and exacerbating every problem that Amelia faces. Physically, Wiseman is incredibly endearing, a tiny child with big eyes that express an earnest innocence, even as his youthful ignorance prevents him from understanding the effect he's having on his mother's emotional state. At one point, he does nothing but scream wordlessly at Amelia for a minute straight, and it's hard not to want to strangle him, while also understanding Samuel's own emotional state and why he's so upset.
Of course, the deeper sadness tormenting Amelia is her loneliness. Her husband was killed while she was driving to the hospital, pregnant with Samuel, which unfortunately means his death and Samuel's birthday are one and the same. As The Babadook begins to come after her, his birthday is approaching, and when Amelia's sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) informs her that this will be the first year Claire's daughter refuses to have a joint birthday party with Samuel, her defense mechanism against this coincidence -- having Sam's party on a different day -- is taken away. Amelia is both lonely in the sense that another person would provide the relief she desperately needs in terms of dealing with Samuel, and of course heartbroken over her departed husband. That depression fuels The Babadook -- as the book says, "if it's in a word, or it's in a look," the creature's influence over her is impossible to avoid. Davis' performance is the core of the film, seguing effortlessly from withering fragility to explosive anger.
As a symbol, The Babadook is less of a character than a presence, a disquieting atmosphere that settles over the house once the book has appeared. After one terrifying evening, Amelia gets rid of the book, but it comes right back, its power only growing. It's an excellent example of creative synergy: while the film's occasional glimpses of the creature's physical incarnation are terrifying in a way that calls back to Nosferatu, most of The Babadook's presence in the film is set up by the illustrations in the pop-up book. Drawn in charcoal-like black and white, The Babadook's round eyes and grinning teeth are brilliantly evocative, and the voice of the creature is just strange enough to get under the skin. The book itself is beautifully written, each rhyme sounding more and more sinister. The concept of the book also spreads to Kent's vision of the world in which it would exist, a slightly removed, faintly gothic version of reality in complimentary gloomy colors that recalls early Tim Burton movies.
Horror is always changing, and these days there seems to be a desire to go back to the straightforward nature of 1980s slasher films. There is a simplicity or sparsity to The Babadook, but it serves to emphasize the story's emotional underpinnings. People looking for a straightforward bit of supernatural mayhem might be disappointed, but those that engage with the film -- those who let him in -- will find The Babadook hard to shake.
IFC / Shout! Factory's Special Edition Blu-ray arrives with a red slipcover mimicking the book from the film (although, for clarity, the title on the slip is The Babadook and not Mister Babadook as it is in the film). To be honest, I'm a little underwhelmed by the slip as collectible packaging: it looks cool, but I had hoped it would be flocked to better represent the book, and I would have much preferred for the flap to feature the "page" from which the illustration on the back cover is taken (the one that was chosen was probably picked based on what would make the best "pop-up" -- visually, it's kind of bland). Underneath the slip, a reversible cover featuring "black" and "white" poster images forms the sleeve, and the one-disc release is contained inside an eco-friendly Viva Elite (with no holes).
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, The Babadook looks and sounds excellent on Blu-ray. The film is peppered with close-ups on Essie Davis' exasperated face, offering extraordinary detail in terms of skin texture and dimensionality. The film is frequently quite dark, yet I did not notice any banding or artifacting creeping into the frame like Mister Babadook himself. Shout! has also been criticized for poor compression on many of their Scream Factory releases, but a careful study of the image in close-up was satisfying to my eyes. There may be a slight blockiness in extremely dark areas, but it's really not something viewers will notice in motion. The sound mix is especially terrifying, enveloping the viewer in a slightly unusual, dreamlike world that accentuates the production design of the house most of the movie takes place in. Each little creak and croak is captured with eerie accuracy, and dialogue is crisp and well-balanced within aurally chaotic moments. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English subtitles are provided, and despite not being mentioned on the packaging, Spanish subtitles are also included.
There are two editions of The Babadook coming to Blu-ray, a Special Edition and a standard edition. In addition to the special slipcover, the Special Edition contains a couple of exclusive extras. All of the content is presented in HD.
First up is Jennifer Kent's short film "Monster" (10:20, windowboxed, DD 2.0). In the last few years, making a short has been a prime way for first-time directors to get a feature (other examples include District 9, Whiplash, and Obvious Child). Kent's Monster is interesting in that while the beats of the story are almost identical, the feature's area of expansion is mostly emotional, giving the two projects distinctly different tones. In a way, the differences are akin to seeing a film remade in another language: Kent's focus was clearly different on the two projects, a rarity when turning shorts into features. The windowboxing is a bit frustrating, but the short isn't long enough for it to really matter.
Three brief deleted scenes (2:57) are also unique to the Special Edition. The first and third are expository beats that nobody will miss, but the second is a nice little scene of Amelia trying to connect with Samuel that I wouldn't have minded seeing in the film.
Four featurettes follow, which as far as I can tell are also exclusive to the Special Edition. "Creating the Book with Illustrator Alex Juhasz" (3:53) is a low-key look at the physical prop produced for the film. Juhasz trails off a bit, and it's a shame we only get to see the "hero" book, but it's nice to see his handiwork up close. "A Tour of the House Set" (6:47) is a walk-through of the film's primary location as it's being created, hosted by an unidentified man who I presume is production designer Alex Holmes. He talks about color scheme and the practical demands of production. In addition, this featurette also serves as a real illustration of the power of lighting. "The Stunts: Jumping the Steps" (1:48) is a bit of B-roll illustrating a wire stunt that didn't make it into the final film. Finally, "Special Effects: The Stabbing Scene" (1:30) brings back Holmes (or whoever it is) to illustrate the work that goes into dressing a hunk of chicken to look like a leg.
The remaining two extras should be the ones present on both editions of the film. "Behind-the-Scenes" (2:55) is a little chunk of B-roll from a couple of scenes. Surprisingly, the most substantial supplement is last: "Cast and Crew Interviews" (1:02:20) is over an hour of material with actors Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Hayley McElhinney, writer / director Jennifer Kent, costume designer Heather Wallace, and producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere. While I certainly appreciate the inclusion of these interviews, and there are some good tidbits with Davis and Kent in here, these are interviews filmed for an EPK, presented unedited, which means you get to hear every single participant describe the story (and the character, if they play one). While the final EPK wouldn't be much of an improvement, an editor could've taken this and turned it into a nice just-for-video featurette instead.
An original theatrical trailer for The Babadook is also included.
Although the bonus features are a bit on the underwhelming side, The Babadook is one of 2014's best horror films. Featuring an insidiously terrifying idea by writer / director Jennifer Kent and a spectacular lead performance in Essie Davis, it's a terrifying and unique movie. This Special Edition of The Babadook is also the way to go, if just to get the short film that inspired the feature. Highly recommended.
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