Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film Review: The Babadook

"The Babadook"  **** (out of ****)

It hasn't had much publicity. You don't see television advertisements, its poster is not on the side of buses. Most of your friends probably haven't heard of it, but, the Australian horror film "The Babadook" (2014) has been quietly gaining steam. And for good reason. It is one of the best films of 2014!

Currently in Chicago it is only playing in one theatre, which has extended its run by two weeks. Showings are sold out. In a slow, creeping fashion, the word is getting out in the underground film scene, "go see "The Babadook". It is one of the scariest films of the year".

I'm slightly reluctant to build up "The Babadook" too much. Not because I genuinely didn't enjoy it, but because, I am afraid of the expectations game. You will find many film critics (sheep) and the public, in print and on the internet, praise the movie highly. Some critics have placed the movie on their year end top-ten list. However, I want you to know this is a low budget Australian movie. You most likely won't be familiar with the actors. There aren't dazzling special effects. Some of the things seen here would be laughable in a big-budget Hollywood production. Yet, at the same time, that is one of the strengths of the movie.

Unlike many Hollywood horror movies, "The Babadook" earns its scares. This movie takes its time establishing characters. Making us believe in the people we see on-screen. It gives the audience something to relate to. And then slowly the scares come in. And finally it is the anticipation that gets us. A lot of the time the frightening images are off-screen and all we have to judge the horror that is being seen is by the expression on the actor's face. Readers, I have never been so frightened by not seeing something as I have been when watching "The Babadook". If the look of terror on the characters faces is any indication of what they have seen, I am glad I did not have to witness it. Of course this device also works for budgetary reasons. It keeps cost low. As I said, this is a low budget movie. No astonishing special effects to speak of.

Like any great horror movie "The Babadook" works on a psychological level and tries to be about more than its scares. It dares to tackle some larger issues. These are the type of horror movies that are the most effective whether it is "The Exorcist" (1973), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) or modern fare such as "Dark Water" (2005). These movies are about characters first. They are more than slasher movies. Once the audience is invested in the characters and the viewer comes to care about them, we are hooked. Making a good horror movie is not different than any other genre of movies. Gives us good characters.

The movie focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother, whose husband died in a car accident while going to the hospital to have their child, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Six years have past. It has been difficult for the both of them. In some perverse way, Amelia cannot look at Samuel and not think of the death of her husband. She loves her son and yet resents him all at once. Samuel can sense it too. In one scene Samuel tells his mother he loves her. She says "me too" not "I love you too". Amelia doesn't like it when Samuel hugs her or displays affection. Both are still going through a grieving process.

Lately Samuel hasn't been sleeping. He says at night there is a monster in his room. Each night he runs to his mother and she examines the room to check for a monster. Afterwards she reads him a bedtime story and the two go to sleep. We see this happen repeatedly.

One night however, Amelia tells Samuel, she will read any story he wants. He picks a book called "Mister Babadook". Amelia is not familiar with this book and ask Samuel where did he get it. It was on his shelf he replies. And so Amelia begins to read the book. It is a pop-up book with very graphic images. The story is more of a warning to the family. Mister Babadook wants entry into their home and the end result will be their death.

Amelia on a couple of occasions tries to get rid of the book. She hides it in her room yet somehow it is back in Samuel's room. She rips the pages out and throws it in the trash. Yet there it is once again, pasted together with a new warning. Images foreshadowing what the future will bring. Finally she burns the book.

All the while, Amelia hears noises at night and begins to see strange images. Is she slowly starting to believe her son? Is there really is a monster in their house? Or is something more frightening happening? Is this monster an act of one of the character's sinister imagination? But which character? It might not be the one you are thinking it is.

Amelia works as a nurse and deals with elderly patients, whom often are not the most agreeable. It requires a lot of patience to attend to them. Contrast that with a mother dealing with her son. Samuel doesn't mean to be a nuisance but he is needy, what child isn't? He constantly calls for his mother. He is in constant need of attention. He is often seen screaming for his mother, either calling out for help or merely to tell her something. Taking care of a child is difficult. Sometimes you just want to yell at the child and tell them to keep quiet. But again, Amelia should have lots of practice with this, since she is a nurse.

"The Babadook" is not just a ghost story. It deals with the grieving process. It explores mother and son relationships. Themes of guilt and resentment. The difficulty of raising a child on your own. And how we all harbor a bit of evil within us. We feed the beast. The challenge is to find the proper balance in life. To learn to deal with our grief and still have a productive life.

One of the great things about "The Babadook" is it keeps the Babadook character (played by Tim Purcell) off-screen a majority of the time. It is not a very scary looking character. It resembles a scarecrow. Being exposed to it, too much, would weaken the movie. It is what the Babadook represents which makes it scary. A looming evil force out to destroy this family.

The only flaw with the movie, in relation to the way it deals with the Babadook character, is by making him speak. This is a mistake because he doesn't sound scary. Better to leave the viewer with sounds that go bump in the night. The sound of footsteps at night when everyone is in bed, the sound of doors creaking open, loud, threatening knocking on a door, vague images in the corner of the frame. That's the stuff that works in "The Babadook".

The movie was written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is her directorial feature-length debut. "The Babadook" is a re-working of a short film called "The Monster" which Ms. Kent made in 2005 and hit the film festival circuit. Meanwhile "The Babadook" has been nominated at various film critic awards including: Boston, Austin, Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and even London.

If you are a bit adventurous in your cinematic viewing "The Babadook" should be a rewarding experience. Viewers have been fortunate to see really effective horror movies like "The Conjuring" (2013) and "The Babadook" recently. Lets hope this trend continues. Who doesn't enjoy a good scare?