Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

I don't really watch a lot of horror films. It's not because I don't have an appreciation for the genre, or because I think the films are "beneath" me or anything. I've written a couple of times about my tough history with the genre, but it basically boils down to me being a big ol' wuss. These films can get under my skin and give me serious nightmares. So if I watch a horror film, it's almost always in the comfort of my own home, where I feel safe, where I can tell myself "it's only a movie." In fact, before going to see The Babadook on December 12, the only horror film I had ever seen in a theater was Black Swan four years ago.

As it turns out, seeing The Babadook at the Carousel Theaters in Greensboro got me thinking about the optimal way to view the film. The film was screening in a corner of the theater known as the Bistro Lounge, which houses four significantly smaller auditoriums (I'd guess each could hold roughly 50 people). While the theater itself plays films both mainstream and independent, the Bistro Lounge usually screens the smaller films that wouldn't necessarily get played in other major theaters (it's the only theater in the Triad that's showing The Babadook).

So there I was, willingly leaving my home safety net to stray into a tiny, claustrophobic auditorium to watch a film that I had heard was both terrifying and brilliant. Three other patrons and myself were about to discover how true the film's tagline really is: "if it's in a word, or it's in a look, there's no getting rid of the Babadook."

More after the jump.

The film centers on Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed mother taking care of her young son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). Sam is exhibiting very strange behavior, building weapons and constantly talking about a monster in the house. It's just more pressure on Amelia, who's still struggling with the loss of her husband. One night, Sam asks her to read to him a pop-up book called "Mister Babadook," which tells of a monster that destroys those who witness it. Sam becomes obsessed with the monster, but as Amelia tries to keep herself together, there may actually be something to the story after all.

What separates first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent's film from other horror films is how ambiguous Mister Babadook is. It's notable that Amelia and Sam are the only ones who see the monster, even when they are outside of their home. Kent keeps the film close to Amelia's perspective, so that the audience is attached to her state of mind. Kent shows remarkable timing as a director, slowly drawing out the tension of each scene until it seems ready to break, yet she never loses any of the momentum or emotional impact of what's happening. Even as the film bounds into its third-act climax, it remains grounded in Amelia's personal struggle.

Similarly, like the shark in Jaws or the xenomorph in Alien, Mister Babadook is more of a shadowy suggestion than a visible monster (it's only seen in the picture book). As such, it allows the audience to project meaning onto it rather than having the film provide a straightforward explanation. Is Mister Babadook a metaphor for grief, the ways that it will always be a part of you but must be overcame to move on with life? Is it a representation for maternal fears, the anxiety that there may be something wrong with your child that you can't repair? Or is it simply a manifestation of Amelia's frustrations with Sam, a pointed statement that sometimes, as a parent, you just don't like to be around your kid? Without any clear definition, the monster becomes even more terrifying, a specter that can haunt you no matter what you think of it.

All of this truly works, though, thanks to the fantastic lead performances from Davis and Wiseman. Davis, perhaps best known to American audiences as Maggie from the Matrix sequels, makes Amelia both devastatingly depressed and fiercely protective, tethered by the memories of her late husband and all-too-comfortable with remaining stagnant. As Amelia slips further into madness, Davis plays her anxiety and insomnia admirably, never letting it slip into campy histrionics. Wiseman, in his first film role, is a natural, nailing Sam's penchant for terrorizing everyone around him without ever losing his sense of innocence. It's a tricky role that he plays effortlessly, a truly great feat of child acting.

There hasn't been a horror film quite like The Babadook in some time. Rather than relying on cheap jump scares, the film twists and turns psychologically, burrowing its way under your skin and staying with you long after the lights come on. The tagline was true: there's no getting rid of The Babadook. A

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