★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Jennifer Kent
A keystone film in the new golden age of horror films. A story on how a mother and her troubled son struggle with grief, which spins into fear and then madness.
With the stunning film Hereditary due to hit theaters in about a week, I’ve stated in my review of that film that The Babadook is a comparable film: thematically, stylistically, and in pedigree, these are close cousins. These are both first-time feature film outings for directors whose previous experience came from the Short Film world. They both deal with the allegorical pain and grief of the loss of family, and they both are slow-burning dramatic movies that kick into fearsome third acts. I then realized how many people reading my review were not familiar with this Australian gem from 2014. So there may have been a collective “Huh? Wha?” when I make that reference. The Babadook was made for a shoestring budget of $2 million and didn’t even make half its budget back in what little a theatrical run it had, but the word of mouth was strong, and it eventually has climbed to the $10,000,000 mark, a testament to good buzz. The film also succeeded at landing a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 85 on Metacritic, making it one of the best-received films of the year, also cleaning up with a number of critic’s year’s end best-of lists.
So, when Mike and I popped in the DVD of this film, I had heard the plaudits, but did not know much about the film. The story revolves around Amelia (Essie Davis) and her troubled young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Now, recall that I stated that I didn’t know much about the film going in, so when I saw Samuel, I thought… that is one FREAKY kid! Is this going to be an Omen story? We find out that Samuel was born immediately after a car crash that claimed his father’s life, on their way to the hospital for Amelia to give birth. Oooooh, that’s going to leave some traumatic scar tissue! That burden has been a crushing emotional anchor around the pair, and as Amelia stumbles around her daily life in a daze, Samuel is fearing the proverbial Monster in a Closet, as provided by a children’s pop-up book “Mr. Babadook”.
You see, the Babadook may be the scariest children’s pop-up storybook ever made. And YES… they did make a pop-up book, in a limited edition of 6000 copies, and these books can now be purchased on eBay for $600-$1000 each. So, if you’re looking for that very special birthday present for your’s truly… this is on my list! (hint, hint) Take a look at the actual full flip through of the book. Don’t worry… no spoilers here.
Samuel is beginning to turn to magic tricks and arms himself with a baseball chucking catapult and a dart-shooting crossbow in order to protect himself and his mom, in what appears to be a Quixotic mission against unseen threats. As he begins to act out more and more demonstrably, he becomes kid-non-grata at school and social functions. He’s reaching the point of scaring and hurting the other kids around him. Additionally, strange and sinister occurrences soon beset the grim household, with Samuel blaming Mr. Babadook for the banging in the night, and the mysterious glass shards in the food (Yikes!). A good portion of act two of the movie puts you in Amelia’s shoes, where you are trying to figure out whether this is going to be a real ghost story or a crazy killer kid story. Bad news, either way.
Eventually, the Babadook influence begins to overpower Amelia as well, and it appears that there is something sinister about the book, but as the book itself proudly proclaims “You can’t get rid of the Babadook!” (dook… dook…) Now the movie begins to create a mother vs. son scenario, with both battling their internal demons and probably an external one, in the Babadook. The movie really starts to blur the lines between what may be their own internal madness, and what might actually be a haunting. For some people, the expectation that this was to be a straight up boogeyman movie, like a Nightmare on Elmstreet or Candyman… those people were going to be really disappointed. However, I will dispute that sentiment. This was a huge achievement. It was an exceedingly smart film, and the deft touch with which Jennifer Kent handled the script and the direction of riding that line of haunting and madness allowed here to manipulate the dread incredibly successfully. The Babadook as it was represented struck the right chord for me as well. Ripped from a children’s book, it was the family’s fears on display. These are two traumatized protagonists, and you get fully invested in their plight. They are not immediately sympathetic characters, and as I described before, Samuel was a wild-eyed hellion on first contact. But the story drew me in, and I actively rooted for the poor kid. And the ending was wonderfully and oddly cathartic.
Hat’s off to the production designer Alex Holmes. The whole de-saturated gray-green schema helped sell the neurotic and depression that Amelia and Samuel were going through. I will admit, that part of my reaction to Amelia’s psychological woes was to suggest, “Honey, I think you could do with some pastels in your house. That color scheme is going to just bring you down!” But… the art direction achieved its goal. It sold the crazy. Never has Australia seemed quite so bleak. Jennifer Kent is a director who should be getting some better looks. Her next film comes out this year, and appears to be more in the thriller mode, in a murder mystery in 1820’s Australia entitled The Nightengale. IFC Midnight is such a great incubator for terrific independent horror films, (Ghost Stories and A Dark Song come immediately to mind), that I really hope that they can again collaborate with Kent again. In a time where Hollywood is looking for the next great female director, I think they should be turning their eyes down under.
The Babadook is not rated, but is probably PG-13. It is not a particularly bloody movie, but it could give you nightmares, and the movie is very intense. The Conjuring is a decent comparable movie in terms of intensity and tone. This is a must-see movie for those interested in the independent horror wave that we are currently riding. It is available for viewing on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.