29 October 2014

Review: The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Aus, 2014)


B

The Babadook
2014, 93mins, 15
Director: Jennifer Kent 
Writer: Jennifer Kent 
Cast includes: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Ben Winspear, Daniel Henshall 
UK Release Date: 24th October (England), 27th October (Northern Ireland) 2014

“The Babadook” has one helluva title. In fact, it might be my favourite thing about an otherwise effective horror film. I mean, seriously. Babadook? It just rolls off the tongue. It sounds like the sort of creation stripped from the pages of a storybook, with dark seeds of threat sewn just beneath its ostensibly hummable veneer. Director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut owes a debt to the works of Roman Polanski and to a lesser degree Sam Raimi, the film utilising psychological torment and macabre boo moments to keep its audience on red alert. It begins with raging intent, signified by its wild, ethereal compositions and deliberately overwrought sound design, and builds steadily until its slightly clapped out ending. The thematic underpinnings of the feature are explored with a thorough eye, but maybe work to dispel some of the picture’s ultimate power. All the best horror flicks leave viewers shaken for hours, threatening to taunt them during moments of loneliness or even lurch uncomfortably into their slumber. “The Babadook” probably won’t manage that. In acutely essaying the notion of horrors past, the film sacrifices the hope of impressing lasting fear. Maybe, just maybe, Babadooks (I honestly don’t know what the plural for a Babadook is.) aren’t so frightening after all.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is haunted by the memory of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), who lost his life the day of their son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) birth. Struggling to pay the bills and control Samuel’s increasingly volatile behaviour, Amelia reaches breaking point when the child becomes obsessed with The Babadook, a nefarious being plucked from the pages of an ominous text. Despite Amelia’s insistence, Samuel refuses to relent, maintaining that the creature is hunting them. Amelia turns to medication, Samuel’s nightly ritual preventing her from ascertaining rest, leaving her unable to function at work or in the domestic realm. As her discomfort mounts, Amelia’s dreams become stranger and her waking hours plagued by visions. Is Oskar’s demise finally prevailing, or might Samuel’s ravings be more fact than fiction?

I’m not sure how Kent’s own familial background is coloured, nor would I dare speculate, but she fashions a fascinating portrait of guilt, shame and resentment in “The Babadook”. The monster grows from Amelia’s uneasy relationship with Samuel, permanently pitching the value of his life against that of the deceased Oskar. Ellie Davis grapples with the complex arc remarkably well, communicating Amelia’s inconsistent thought process in aggressive but authentic ways. She’s desperate to protect her tempestuous son, but the actress is equally able to sell scattered moments of shameful hatred. Davis is protected by good writing and Kent’s clever film-making style, prioritising unsettling edits and trippy lensing to capture the essence of the character’s fractured psyche. Amelia is a victim, with the filmic and thespian contribution ensuring she’s familiar enough to glean empathy, whilst complex enough to cater for the picture’s thesis on monsters born from memory. Noah Wiseman’s concerted and natural turn comes with sufficient energy, it’s tiring to watch him, but such are Samuel’s levels of conviction, it becomes understandable why Amelia never fully ignores his babbling. Kent deserves plaudits for extracting such a finely tuned performance from a child, one that serves her overall vision slickly.

Mister Babadook is an inspired creation, defined by queasy Illustrations, Ripper-esque costuming and posture modelled after the assorted fiends of German Expressionism.  The monster is evil, harking back to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and a time when that alone was enough to justify fear. “The Babadook”doesn’t touch on myth or legend, and thankfully lacks a sequence in which Amelia seeks a weary, occult expert to help tackle the beast. The character’s struggle and the monster are bonded, one defined entirely by the other. Kent establishes this early, and ensures that it’s going to be a domestic showdown, a child’s life hanging in the balance. The stakes are simple, but the implications are huge, “The Babadook” mapping its crucial conflict within a ravaged mind, where only the afflicted can earn peace or liberation. Davis’ convincing fragility lends each bumpy jolt all the more weight. There are no extraneous or superfluous sequences here. Each beat could be the one that costs Amelia her sanity and Samuel his life, affording every creak and scream the ability to affect the story’s outcome.

Kent’s fixations are incredibly mature, and her focus is stellar. “The Babadook” never sells out, safeguarding its human interests, even when the shit hits the fan. Many genre film-makers might let the chicanery get the better of them, obsessing over the antagonist’s power, with Amelia and Samuel wilting in the background. Right up to the final frames, the feature is their story, a tale devoted to the universal truths of waking nightmares reborn. That said, “The Babadook”climaxes on an impossibly tidy note, shuffling the dangers of the past into the proverbial basement. I suppose given the film’s stance on evading or escaping grief, “The Babadook" could only end one way, but it’s unsatisfying. After the furious orgy or upset that precedes the finish, it’s curious to watch “The Babadook”tame grief and a potentially nuclear mother/son dynamic so confidently. Fearsome, achingly human pains become a grumpy, yet domesticated house-cat. I’m not sure that’s quite the climax this creation and the brave examination of maternal strife warranted. The conviction of the drama gets washed away, leaving something more generic in its wake.


That title though, eh?

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014