Y’know what is one of the finer moments of my increasingly busy life. When I get to be lazy and people won’t feel cheated. The unfortunate forced demise of Fixing a Hole 2014 will not be one of those, since it’s less out of being lazy and of life being in the way, but the fact that I ideally do not have to give Australian Jennifer Kent’s 2014 debut feature The Babadook much of an introduction is certainly one of those. By the end of the year, most of the people who have been interested in its upon its immediate release will have certainly heard of it already and here’s hoping I interest a few more people into checking it out.
Because the movie honestly deserves it.
Kent, a former-actress-turned-Lars-von-Trier-tutored-director, went to a significant amount of Do-It-Yourself lengths to be able to construct the claustrophobic, darkened, gloomy world of The Babadook that involved asking favors from familiar friends, recruiting worldwide artisans to become future collaborators, Australian government funding and then further Kickstarter funding for the rest, and low-fi handmade efforts to create a standout horror film that would easily rank among the best since the turn of the decade and has been regarded as such by most of the filmgoing world since its premiere at Sundance 2014.
I personally saw the movie three times which is really a surprise for me to see any movie that amount in a single year, let alone during its release (at one point, I dropped my shit to go see it in the cinema the moment I found out that a local theater was finally showing it).
The Babadook is a look into the unfortunate domestic life of Amelia (Essie Davis, a classmate of Kent’s back in acting school) and her actively-imaginative and overly excitable son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). There is no father in the picture. The father had died in a car accident on their way to the hospital the night they were having Sam. Amelia has tried very hard not to let it affect her relationship with her son, who is already a handful as is, but it is immediately clear that resentment is harbored towards Sam for how his birth led to the death of her husband – a particular symptom of this is that Sam is forbidden from celebrating his birthday on the exact date, instead being forced to share his birthday with (and in turn forcing themselves further into the lives of) his cousin Ruby, to the exasperation of her mother/Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney).
Perhaps one of the better moments of bonding Sam and Amelia are able to share without any strings attached are in the form of pre-bedtime storybook reading, like most parents, and so one night, the Babadook suddenly appears upon Sam’s bookshelf. It begins as a harmless but subtly creepy little tale (indeed, the book itself is alarming in its red cover down to its cave-drawing-like pencil grays and blacks that make up its affrontive illustrations – I’m very heavily considering pre-ordering the book within the week), then its content becomes directly threatening to Amelia and she tries to get rid of it.
Only to find out quickly that you can’t get rid of the Babadook. And that Sam is beginning to take the matter a lot more seriously than one possibly should while Amelia’s stress and sanity is itself being pulled to the end of its rope.
Now, of course, I would like to pretend that there is more to the premise itself than the obvious thematic aspects of orphanhood, single parenting, psychological damage, grief, etc. that one doesn’t need much imagination to immediately recognize just from the description I’ve given. But you see, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting it all out on the surface of the film, since it kills so many birds with its own stone: Not only does the baldness of the premise allow for a much potent punch behind every character beat in their development, but it allows the visual element of the film – which is constantly present as Cronenweth-like sterile exteriors and Murnau/Dreyer interiors of larger-than-life walls and doors, dutch angles, and considerable black endlessness of corridors and rooms – to act as an extension of schematics for the trials and tribulations of the characters dealing with the ambiguity and danger in the Babadook’s existence.
That’s certainly not easy work and we have to big it up to everyone, but to name the main MVPs: production designer Alex Holmes, whoever is in charge of mixing that spine-tingling sound (a visit to the doctor becomes possibly the most unsettling moment for me in the movie every time I watch it, just from its undertone of all its uncomfortably close shots of inspection), and of course Davis and Wiseman for being able to convey their own psychological troubles in genuine manners, especially Wiseman who – maybe accidentally but still impressively – can change the overactive grin in the prestige of his magic act to a fearful grimace.
This is of course Amelia’s story most of all, though, and Davis is able to take the dynamics of her character’s spiraling descent up a smaller notch more and more to mirror what’s going on in Amelia’s life until, before we know it, she becomes one of the spookiest parts of the whole movie, even in spite of being just as game as Kent and co. in the beginning of the film to try to turn this boogeyman in the closet sort of film into the adult translation of those sort of small child terrors.
If I had to state what was the most disturbing thing I found in this completely unsettling and constantly dreading picture, I feel I would be going into spoiler territory, but I guess what I will state is that I found myself struggling with tearing my sympathies between Amelia in the face of what Sam is becoming and Sam in the face of what Amelia is becoming. And that’s probably the best thing to do – scaring the hell out of an audience by having them look at themselves.
It’s certainly not without its fault – almost exclusive to the third act of the picture which takes itself to a near-camp level of eye-rolling anti-climactic resolution before catching itself thankfully one more time prior to the finale – but the movie has deserved practically every amount of praise it has got over the past year as a taut, creepy, intense instant classic of the horror genre that will probably remain revered well beyond the turn of this decade.