Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

Of all the fears tied up in parenthood, the one that sticks out for me most is the fear that I'll wind up loathing my child. Bundled up in that kid would be all the bitterness and resentment of missed opportunities, and the heartbreaking disappointments--that I failed my child as a parent and a human being, and, selfishly, that the kid failed to have any lovable or redeeming qualities.

These anxieties may explain why I connected with Jennnifer Kent's debut film, The Babadook. Hyped all year since premiering at Sundance and now out in theaters and VOD, The Babadook blends great elements of psychological horror, supernatural horror, and Ozploitation. This is the kind of horror film that creeps and remains because it's not just about the shadow in the corner of the room or the monster hiding under the bed but how these are bleak and potent metaphors for the worst (but maybe also the most human) aspects of ourselves.

At the center of The Babadook is Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). On the way to give birth to Samuel, Amelia and her husband were in a car accident that left her a widow. Amelia has since struggled as a single-mother to raise her child, though he'd be more than a handful for even the most patient parent. Samuel crafts homemade weapons to fight imaginary beasts, he's clingy and too attached to allow his mom to sleep alone, and he's just plain weird. Not adorably weird like ugly ducklings, but shouty, bratty, attention-starved and snotty--a kind of hyperactive monster in his own way. The strain in this mother-son relationship gets worse with the appearance of a pop-up book called Mister Babadook, which tells the story of a monster that's coming for them both.

Kent comes at The Babdook with such keen eyes and ears. Compositionally, she and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk know how to get the most dread out of an image. The lighting and negative space in each shot is carefully considered to draw attention and also provoke anticipation. The sound design for The Babadook also stands out, with slight touches--subliminal squeals, thumps, and static--adding as much to the atmosphere as the memorable croak of the film's creature. Kent's studious nods to horror past are seen throughout the film but never in a distracting way, from the look of The Babadook in the pop-up storybook (think Coffin Joe as drawn by Maurice Sendak and Stephen Gammell) to the film's paranoiac dread that recalls The Shining, Repulsion, and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Yet Kent's careful filmmaking wouldn't work as well as it does without Davis as the lead. It's such an incredible performance full of highs and lows. Throughout, Davis imbues Amelia with such honest vulnerability coupled with palpable rage. Amelia views Samuel as a symbol of the love she lost and the life she can no longer have; all the hurts and griefs of her life are balled up in her odd little boy born on the night her husband died. Kent makes sure that Samuel is shown in his beastliest, shittiest light. She was fortunate to find Wiseman for the film since he's a child who appears adorable in some shots but eerily strange in others. This anger in Amelia is so raw because it's been repressed for so long and only now boiling over, and yet it's so sympathetic because Davis finds the delicate heart in the ugliest of Amelia's emotions.

There are signs of a lesser movie in The Babadook that Kent is smart to set up but then avoid. For one, the audience is allowed to wonder if The Babadook is an actual supernatural bogeyman or a symbolically rich delusion (or both). Lesser films would hold hands and offer explanations. Another lesser film would provide a savior through romance--as if our heroine was in need of a dashing hero to slay the dragon, as if restoring the family unit with a new dad would solve everything. Amelia is obviously smitten with one her nursing home co-workers played by Daniel Henshall (you may remember Henshall for his exceptional performance in Justin Kurzel's grim, grimey 2011 debut The Snowtown Murders), but pat solutions where love conquers all are tossed aside for more meaningful confrontations with monsters.

The Babadook even avoids the banal moral of many lesser movies about parenting: "Being a parent is a tough job." In those films, the parent comes to terms with this lesson, dusts off his or her hands, and then goes merrily about the business of child rearing. Amelia is nervier and sadder, and Samuel is less than an angel or would-be angel, so The Babadook screams out a different and darker observation about Amelia's experiences with parenthood, one that seems more true because it is so unguardedly ugly, and one that most parents probably have at one time or another: "I wish my child had never been born."

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