Sunday, January 11, 2015
If you have read any of my blog posts, you are likely aware of the fact that I have very little interest in modern-day horror films. Most of them are structured around excessive gore or violent action, and they lack the advantage of the classic Gothic setting. Contrary to the belief of some, I don't watch horror movies because I want to see people get killed, or women harmed, or the "bad guys" winding up victorious. To me an effective scary film needs to rely on more than just blood & guts--it should have an atmosphere of unease.
Very few films made today have that, but a new one that does is THE BABADOOK, an Australian production written & directed by Jennifer Kent.
The story centers around Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who works at a nursing home, and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noel Wiseman). Amelia's husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel, and both mother and son suffer from emotional trauma. One night Amelia reads a mysterious pop-up book to Sam before bedtime. The book is called "Mr. Babadook", and it looks like it was designed by a very angry Tim Burton and written by a very angry Dr. Suess. The book causes Samuel to become even more emotionally upset, to the point where he is convinced that the evil Babadook exists. Soon both Amelia and Samuel wind up in downward spiral of fear and loathing, fighting a force they cannot see or define.
THE BABADOOK is not for the SAW or WALKING DEAD crowd. It has supernatural elements but it is also an exercise in psychological horror. Essie Davis gives an amazing performance as Amelia. Before the Babadook book is even read, we can tell that Amelia has issues. She's still not over the death of her husband, and the attitude problems of her son are clearly taking a toll on her. She also suffers from sleep deprivation, and she looks so tired throughout the film that after awhile I myself started feeling run down just watching her. Essie Davis really has to go through the ringer here, and it's surprising that a low-budget horror film would feature a realistic presentation of a working-class single mother.
Then again, maybe it's not so surprising, considering that this film was written and directed by a woman. Most horror films are produced by and for men, and men usually require action. In this film Amelia is sort of trapped by her circumstances of being a single mother with an unruly child. What makes Amelia's situation all the more worse is that she is constantly being judged by those around her. A male character in this type of film would grab a gun or an ax and do something....Amelia can't do those things. At one point in the film Amelia leaves work early and she is shown just walking around a mall. This scene stuck with me because it is so real--the fact that someone like Amelia just needed a few moments to get away from her responsibilities.
With his wide eyes and crocodile smile, Noel Wiseman is just about the creepiest kid since Martin Stephens in the early 1960s. He's certainly not the bad guy in this story, but because of his behavioral problems the audience feels uneasy about him--and that's something I think director Kent wanted.
The sense of unease that THE BABADOOK projects comes from more than just the two main characters. The production design contributes to the unease as well. Most of the film takes place inside Amelia and Sam's house, and the color scheme there is a dark bluish-gray. Because of this the film feels like a black & white movie shot in color. The house also has a very sparse look to it, which doesn't seem contrived, since it is established that Amelia does not have a lot of money. The overall effect of the art direction gives the movie an Expressionistic/silent film quality.
The real highlight of this production is the actual Babadook book. It is one of the best movie props in recent memory. The book was designed, illustrated, and built by Alex Juhasz, and actual limited-edition copies of the book are being sold on the internet by the film makers (if anybody wants to go out and buy me one, feel free). The book is really a main character of the story, and it is the only thing that gives the audience a general idea of what the Babadook may actually look like. We never get a proper view of the Babadook in the film, which makes it all the more frightening. The only clear visual motif we have of it is a top hat, which obviously ties it into the world of classic horror. Jennifer Kent also references classic horror by featuring "cameos" from the works of George Melies, Lon Chaney, and Mario Bava in the film.
Suffice to say I was highly impressed by THE BABADOOK. It is one of the best horror films I have seen in a long time. There's barely any gore in it, and even better, there appears to be almost no CGI. One thing I appreciated was that no explanations were given for the Babadook book--you never find out who wrote it, or why, or even how the book got into the possession of Amelia and Sam in the first place. (If you don't have much of an imagination, and you want everything explained to you, you'd better skip this film.) I have to give Jennifer Kent credit for fooling me. At one point after a dialogue scene revealed some information about Amelia, I thought I had the story figured out, and I thought that the book was just a MacGuffin--but no, the ending I was expecting didn't happen, and I was pleasantly surprised by that. The character of The Babadook is a great addition to the list of memorable movie monsters, and the film of THE BABADOOK is a great creation by Jennifer Kent.