Tuesday, November 4, 2014

[Review] The Babadook

This awesomely titled Australian horror film, The Babadook, has finally made its way to a bigger release in the United States, and it might just be a new classic.

Directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook revolves around a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a world-weary and distressed hospital worker, coping with the loss of her husband and father of her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel exhibits behavioral problems in school and eventually gets kicked out, but "He just needs some understanding," Amelia stresses. One night before bed, she reads Samuel a scary pop-up children's book called "Mister Babadook" that turns out to be more graphic than they were both expecting. Samuel is frightened of The Babadook, a cloaked boogeyman-like phantom, and it becomes a paranoid obsession of his. Sam's disturbed-ness escalates and strange occurrences take place around their house, and Amelia isn't sure whether it's Samuel's doings, her medication, a stalker, or... The Babadook.

Without going full arthouse, The Babadook is one of the more visually arresting horror films in recent memory, from its falling Suspiria-like opening sequence, to its paperback display showcases. The dusted visuals, interesting slideshow-esque shots, and shadowy blueish and grey hues create a distinct mood. There are some cool, diegetic odes to early (and I mean EARLY) horror films where the Babadook is actually transplanted into the images. The sound design is top-notch; every creek, step, and door handle twist is amplified in the mostly music-less backgrounds. And the insanely creepy croak of The Babadook's voice is unforgettable. Noah Wiseman is perfectly cast, and Essie Davis' performance is so committed that--in a perfect world--she'd be getting Oscar recognition.

Aside from the solid technical craft, it's the primal story at the center that really captures you. The characters are well-developed and the narrative is chilling in tone. It taps into those childlike fears (being afraid of the dark, checking under beds, and opening closet doors...), as well as parental worries. It skillfully mixes horror with poignancy and grief in a way that's reminiscent of other 21st century supernatural tales in the same realm, like The Orphanage and Mama. It's all a steady, slow-burning build of dread and the prolonged climactic sequence hits hard. This sequence also contains one of the greatest and most emotional yelling lines on film.

The film doesn't use jump scares for jolts. While those types of scares do have their place and were used to effective degrees in recents like Sinister and The Conjuring, The Babadook presents the different brand of horror in which there's more of a concentration on what lurks beneath the darkness. This choice in tactic definitely doesn't make the fright any less thrilling. There are some excellently constructed scenes that make just staring at a night time ceiling horrifying. There's significant meaning behind every action and shadow movement.

The Babadook is allegorical, representing a deeper terror that is more grounded in reality than we'd like it to be. It's a nightmare that might not ever leave, and you can only do your best to keep it at bay.


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