Sunday, November 23, 2014

"The Babadook"

 4 / 5 

As a horror film, I enjoyed The Babadook more than most fright-fests.  Director Jennifer Kent knows her way around the gloomy foreboding of an empty house filled with shadows.  She captures the dread that comes at night, when hallways and staircases traversed without effort during the day become places that hide unimaginable obstacles once the lights go out.

To that end, The Babadook is genuinely startling and unsettling.  Amelia (Essie Davis) is a woman who might be considered on the verge of a nervous breakdown if it weren't so clear that she is hanging over the edge with fingers exhausted from years of effort.

Seven years earlier, her husband Oskar died while rushing her to the Australian hospital to give birth to Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Neither mother nor son has fully recovered from the incident.  Samuel has led a short life so fraught with anxiety and fear over the mortality of his mother that he has taken to believing in every possible danger that could befall her -- most especially, imaginary ones.

His behavior has become downright dangerous: He creates elaborate, spring-loaded booby traps and complex weapons designed to stop in its tracks any being he deems harmful to his mother, and delights in showing these off at school.  Neither the school administrators nor his classmates are amused.

Samuel's insistence that something terrible will invade their home and take his mother from him is not played for amusement; this isn't Home Alone Down Under.  The disturbing psychological path her son is walking has left Amelia with sallow skin, sunken eyes, brittle hair and a desperation that seems almost sweet to her co-worker (Daniel Henshall), until he realizes the extent to which both Amelia and Samuel have been damaged.

If it's all manageable, though just barely, the calm curtain that just barely covers their lives is brought down catastrophically when Samuel asks his mother to read him a book that has gone overlooked on his shelf.  It's a strange, scary thing called Mister Babadook, and warns of a shadowy, sharp-toothed stranger with a top hat and a black cloak who will come calling in the middle of the night.

The more you deny his reality, the pop-up book claims, the more he's going to drive you insane.

The graphic black-and-white design of Mister Babadook utterly terrifies Samuel, who is immediately convinced that the Babadook is real.  Though Amelia tries to calm the boy's shattered nerves, it's not too long before the shadows at night seem to be darker and the harmless noises that fill the house seem to take on the sound the book promises the creature will make: "Ba-BA-ba Dook-DOOK-DOOK."

The Babadook never doubts that the terror is real, and though the movie would have perhaps benefitted from a little more clarity around the creature itself -- which is effectively presented on the page as a cross between Murnau's Nosferatu and John Barrymore's fiendish Mr. Hyde -- as well as its nature and internal logic, the film excels at its not-so-hidden subtext.

"It is the aloneness within us made manifest," author Andrew Solomon wrote about the horrors of depression in his book The Noonday Demon, and those who have suffered from depression or its almost identical twin grief know too well the way depression is often described: as a terrifying monster of shadows, one that creeps up on you and is impossible to escape.

The Babadook brings a hideous and frightening form to the gloom, dread and terror of mental illness. The more Amelia insists The Babadook is imaginary, the more real it becomes -- and as it fulfills its promise to drive her completely mad, Samuel cowers in fear.  The Babadook is, in many ways, a smaller-scale and even more effective version of The Shining.

The Babadook will satisfy all but the most impatient or gore-loving horror fans, but more importantly will be alarmingly fulfilling and impressively layered for those looking for an unexpectedly satisfying exploration of the terrors and fears of ordinary life.

Viewed Nov. 22, 2014 -- VOD