Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Producer: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Hayley McElhinney, Benjamin Winspear
A single mother and her precocious child come to suspect that they are being terrorized by an imaginary storybook monster.
“What’s all the buzz about,” will be muttered by grumpier viewers who just don’t click with “The Babadook.” Ravenous gorehounds might tense shoulders as they turn palms to the ceiling and proclaim that the movie has too much mood and not enough jump from your seat thrills. Elitists can dismiss the film’s wafer-thin budget, $30,000 of which was raised via Kickstarter, as evidence that it cannot compete with its beefy pocketbook peers. And a tight tale of a put-upon mother and her precocious son battling a monster under the bed elicits no small number of “been there, done that” assumptions.
To a certain degree, all of these things are true. At the fork in its road, “The Babadook” opts for a cerebral approach to atmospheric dread instead of creature in the closet boos. Wires, wheels, and weighted pulleys are nearly visible from practical effects that are more serviceable than they are special. And the movie puts crutches under its arms from expectations every film fan has regarding familiar ideas about parenthood, haunted houses, and shadows bumping in the night.
In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that even with its terrifying mythology, dark imagery, and brief bits of blood-dripping chills, “The Babadook” is much more of a straight drama than it is a genre film. But the cleverness in the collective charm of everything mentioned above ends up working in unison to put “The Babadook” at the top of the list for the most emotionally engaging horror film of 2014.
At the rate he uses “mom, mama, mommy” to attract his mother’s attention every time he announces another upcoming feat, six-year-old Samuel could give Stewie Griffin a serious run for the annoying money. Since her husband died en route to the hospital on the night of Samuel’s birth, Amelia has been on her own to raise a child who has more energy and behavioral issues than manners and common sense, and on a nurse’s paltry income to boot. It’s no wonder Amelia resembles an exhausted post-Woody Allen Mia Farrow living under Rosemary Woodhouse-level stress and frustration.
To dub the relationship between mother and son as complicated would be an understatement. Samuel isn’t necessarily deliberately disobedient, he just can’t cage his imagination behind traditional bars for childlike behavior. And Amelia is so far from doting that she can be considered cool to her son’s boundless affection for her, even though the plight of having her hands full with a child who has no off switch turns tsk tsks towards her callousness into understanding sympathy.
The battery of Samuel and Amelia is crucial to powering “The Babadook,” and it is just as important in powering audience interest in the film. Conflict is of course the catalyst for drama. What first-time feature writer/director Jennifer Kent smartly does is to place that push-pull collision inside the viewer’s psyche as the audience rides a rollercoaster of sentiment regarding how to feel about the central characters.
Samuel hungers so loudly for attention that his overbearing presence is virtual birth control for anyone considering a future in parenting. His in one ear and right out the other inability to stay focused on any one thing is obnoxiously tiring, yet the expressions delivered by phenomenal child actor Noah Wiseman make it impossible not to feel sorry for the impish misfit. The greatest goal in his world is to excitedly protect his mother from imaginary dangers, a sentiment directly at odds with any desire to see the boy put in a corner for misbehaving.
Amelia practically sleepwalks through her humdrum daily life. She has to, since she cannot find a moment’s rest when Samuel is running perpetually at top speed. She shuns his embraces, ignores his basic needs, and comes off as a needlessly cruel witch until the backstory reveals more meaning behind her struggle and the attitude toward her shifts into sincere pity.
After Samuel requests that mom read a mysterious bedtime storybook titled “Mister Babadook,” their story takes a supernatural turn as the boy insists the creature is real and mother insists on silencing his foolish notions. At this point, “The Babadook” starts looking like it is going into conventional “cry wolf” territory about a tangible monster and a mother’s love put to the test to protect her child.
What “The Babadook” actually turns out to be is the story of a two-person family coping with devastating grief through the lens of a traditional horror story. The monster itself and the danger it presents are secondary elements, and are really only manifestations illustrating the familial strife. The way Samuel and Amelia unfurl as characters and the arc their relationship takes is the true heart and soul of “The Babadook.”
If major film industry organizations paid attention to small indie genre features from Australia, lead actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman would both be in the running for gold statuettes come awards season. Their performances are stunningly exceptional and there is no applause too great to give director Jennifer Kent for tuning their pitches to precisely the same frequency. Kent’s success here is not just in crafting effective suspense, but in coaxing the talent to graft flesh onto fiction in a way that demands a connection from even the most passive viewer.
Kent and her crew experiment with inventive camera movements and a Dr. Caligari meets George Melies visual aesthetic that gives the film a unique feel, making it eerily dreamlike without sacrificing grounded reality. Even the occasional clunkiness works into that throwback era vision of silent-era production design. “The Babadook” runs away on several third act tangents longer than it needs to, but the tether between Samuel and Amelia is so simultaneously wrenching, heartwarming, and unsettling that an audience has a harder time losing focus than the movie sometimes does.
This is a film whose highly charged resonance lingers on the outskirts of the mind for days, much like Mister Babadook himself lingers on the periphery of the deepest fears of overactive children and disbelieving adults alike. Through respectful employment of traditional themes, “The Babadook” transcends commonplace elements to become something memorably unique. “The Babadook” is a hauntingly mesmerizing and tensely gripping thriller certain to have fans croaking “Baba-dook-doook-DOOOOOK!” anytime they want to give someone lasting nightmares.
Review Score: 90