Friday, January 23, 2015

The Babadook

Synopsis (from the official website):
From breakthrough writer-director Jennifer Kent comes the creepy psychological horror movie The Babadook that has received an explosion of acclaim following its world premiere at Sundance 2014.  The film tells of a single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, who battles with her son's night time fear of a shadowy monster.  But soon, she discovers a sinister presence is lurking in the house.
With echoes of past and contemporary classics like Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, The Exorcist, The Omen and Let the Right One In, the film is an immaculately crafted tale starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman.  The supporting cast includes Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West and Ben Winspear.

My thoughts:
The hype machine was fired up for this one.  The Babadook had been making the festival rounds and was getting nothing but rave reviews.  I wrote a post about the trailer, in which I detailed my attempt to lower my expectations.  I succeeded to some degree, but I was still very much looking forward to this one.  When I finally got my grubby mitts on a copy of this (complete with a severely dialed-back version of the pop-up book), I squealed.  I squealed like a little girl.  In a little dress.  Little saddle shoes.  Little pigtails.

That does sound like a little girl.
The first half hour of this was a little rough.  They needed to set up Essie Davis' Amelia as an exhausted, barely-clinging-to-her-sanity mother of a problem child (the word they kept using was "disobedient," but he was really just an unholy terror).  They needed to do this so that, when Mister Babadook showed up, we weren't sure if there were really a monster in the house or if it was just the frayed edges of her sanity finally becoming fully unraveled.
It's the way this was done that really wore me down in the early going.  Her son, Samuel, is a shrieking horror.  He sees monsters in the house from the beginning, so he comes up with a series of weapons to battle them (my favorite is a backpack that hurls a baseball with a mechanical arm).  As you can imagine, this ends with him breaking lots of things.  He doesn't get along with other children, which leads to them picking on him and him retaliating.  Between his gadgets and his violence, he could be seen as a mix between Macaulay Culkin's character in Home Alone and his character in The Good Son.  He is kicked out of school and forced to spend more time at home with his sleep-deprived mother.  But, most of all, he shrieks.  He kicks and screams and screams and screams and screams...

It's really obnoxious.  I fully understand that's exactly the point, but it's grating.  We're supposed to sympathize with Amelia when she feels like she just can't go on.  She may not love her child, and we're supposed to see exactly why she is at this point.  It's effective, but it's still not a lot of fun to watch.  Then again, we're watching as a mother pretends to love her child, all the while fluctuating between being afraid of him and resenting him.  This isn't supposed to be fun.  

Then Mister Babadook shows up, and the movie really takes off.  A pop-up book shows up and she reads it to her child.  It's horrifying.  She destroys the book, only to have it show up later with some more pages added.  Are those new pages real?  Was the book put there by a stalker, or was it The Babadook?  

She starts hearing noises in the house at night.  Seeing shadows move.  When the first growling strains of, "Ba ba-ba dook dook DOOK," filled the room as she hid under her covers, I felt a chill go up my spine. 
Even then, it was unclear whether or not The Babadook was real, or just a product of her deteriorating sanity.  Was she really hearing those things, or did she just think she was?  She was sleep-deprived to begin with, but, as the movie progressed, it seemed like she didn't sleep more than 15 minutes a night.  That little sleep can do terrible things to a mind.

As Amelia's sanity slipped further way, Samuel somehow became the voice of reason.  The tables had turned.  He was now terrified of his mother, and with good reason.  As much as she recoiled in horror when the book showed her killing her son, a part of her seemed like that would be a good idea.  As a child, what's more terrifying than a mother who wants to kill you?  How she came to that point is trivial.  To Samuel, it doesn't matter if she's possessed by a monster or just exhausted: the end result is the same.

I don't want to get into it too much more, lest I creep into spoiler territory.

I loved this.  As I mentioned, the first act can be a little dicey, but it's a necessary evil.  The second act is great and filled with a lot of creepy moments.  The third act goes completely bonkers, in the best way imaginable.  It can be a little hard to watch at times - we basically have a front row seat for some nasty family violence - but it's not pointless.  Everything is here for a reason.  It's a film that doesn't pull any punches, but also isn't shocking for the sake of being shocking. 
This is an extremely affecting psychological thriller that may-or-may-not involve an actual monster.  While it may not be as terrifying as I had hoped it would be, it was still really creepy and was on my mind for days.  A lot of these images and themes are extremely hard to shake.  This movie works best when you're paying full attention to it.  Find a quiet night, turn off all the lights and lose yourself in The Babadook.

Rating: 5/5

One final thought:
They decided to make copies of the Mister Babadook pop-up book featured in the film.  Did I buy one?  Yes.  Yes I did.  However, I have some concerns.
Let's say that reading this book wills Mister Babadook into existence.  Doesn't it seem like a bad idea to flood households with a book that calls forth a monster?  It's basically the plot of the Pinky & The Brain Christmas special, except instead of it ending with The Brain taking over the world through hypnosis, it ends with a ton of people housing a monster and possibly killing all their loved ones.  This seems like a very bad idea.

Also, is there only one Babadook, or will each book conjure up a separate Babadook?  If there's only one, the results would be delayed.  He would terrorize one family until he's done, then move on to the next (or he would try to split his time equally and end up with all of us being mildly inconvenienced by his presence).  If there is one Babadook for every book, we're in big, big trouble.
I know they say you can't get rid of him, but I take that as a personal challenge.  You and me, Mister Babadook.  Let's dance.

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