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“The Babadook” is so close to being great it’s scary

BABADOOK-Book

“The Babadook” was one of the most talked about horror movies of 2014. The film has a Metascore of 86 and a Rotten Tomatoes fresh rating of 98%. But for me, like a sprinter prematurely celebrating meters before the finish line as he is overtaken by another runner, it fell short of excellence at the end.

Although I feel “The Babadook” was a strong film—not just a fine horror film, but quite a dramatic achievement—I found myself underwhelmed as the credits rolled. Screenrant said, “While ‘The Babadook’ is a well-crafted, insightful, and overall excellent film, it’s not going to be for everyone.” I think this movie would be “for everyone” if it not for the lame reveal and conclusion.

“The Babadook” is the directorial debut of Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Kent. The story follows Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis), a grieving mother to a problem child Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as she copes with the loss of her husband, who died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to deliver their son. Their troubles multiply when they find a strange children’s book about a man named Mister Babadook. For the Vannick family, Mister Babadook is more than just a children’s story.

But what the movie is really about, and where it excels in its storytelling, is grief. It is well crafted with multiple layers of meaning. Mister Babadook merely is a physical stand-in for the pain of loss and the coping with grief. And as Sam reiterates, “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Indeed, you cannot get rid of loss; cannot permanently do away with grief.

BABADOOK-Ameilia and Sam at Table

The film’s lead role and one of its biggest achievements is Essie Davis. Davis is transformative as Amelia Vannick. It’s a phenomenal performance by a gifted actor in the hands of an actor’s director (Kent was an actress for two decades, even graduating alongside Davis). She weaves in and out of drastic emotions: exhaustion, hopelessness, groveling, embarrassment, eventually psychosis, and then rage like I haven’t seen in recent cinema. I say this without any sexism: Davis’ outbursts are stronger than any male counterpart’s.

BABDOOK-Scream

Kent cites “The Shining” as inspiration. This is most prevalent in Davis’ Jack Torrance-like transformation from a flawed but always trying to be a good parent to an extremely aggressive threat to her own child.

Screenrant said, “Where other horror films cast mother figures as strident protectors, Amelia is far less heroic (at times) and, for that reason, significantly more relatable—placing the audience inside a haunted home where the horror isn’t always black and white.”

BABADOOK-Closet

Kent is an admirable storyteller with a unique understanding of the craft, as both actress and filmmaker. Upon graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1991, she worked primarily as an actor for two decades. But towards the end of the 90s, she was losing her passion for acting and reached out to Danish director Lars von Trier, who then gave her a job assisting on the set of “Dogville” (2003). Wikipedia states, “she considers the experience her film school, citing the importance of stubbornness as the key lesson she learned.”

Kent weaves an impressively complex, honest story. At no moment did anything ring untrue to me—and we’re talking about a supernatural monster movie. But then again, we’re not. Because the monsters and the horror elements of “The Babadook” are not other worldly, they’re deeply rooted in the human condition. The monster is grief, the pain is loss, and the decisions are driven by a need to cope with loss and grief.

Kent said that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness within ourselves, the “fear of going mad” and an exploration of parenting from a “real perspective”. In regard to parenting, Kent further explained, “Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.”

I’m not a woman, I’m not a mother, and I’ve never wanted to kill my son. But I get, without any sense of morbid irony, why Amelia could contemplate stabbing her son to death. He is difficult, he is problematic, and he does not make her life any easier. The love of her life, the father of her child, is killed driving her to the hospital to deliver the boy. That scenario alone brings up a very tough question with a simple answer. Can a mother feel resentment towards her child because her husband is killed in the process of bringing the boy into the world? Simply, yes. She can. That is a perfectly acceptable emotion to feel in that situation. Kent’s dedication to honest portrayals of taboo subjects is inspiring.

Kent’s storytelling honesty is rightfully heralded. Tim Teeman at The Daily Beast states that the film informs the audience that grief has its place and the best that humans can do is “marshal it”. Egyptian national film critic Wael Khairy concluded that the film is “based on something very real” and “feels unusually beautiful and even therapeutic.”

“The Babadook” is shot by Radek Ladczuk with an Arri Alexa and Zeiss Master Prime lenses in 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio. According to Wikipedia, “The film’s final color scheme was achieved without the use of gels on the camera lenses or any alterations during the post-filming stage.”

In a monster movie, genre fans want to see an interesting visual creature. Kent insisted on a low-fi and handmade approach to Mister Babadook.  They favored practical elements, using stop-motion effects for the monster with a large amount of smoothening completed in post-production.

Kent explained to the Empire publication: “There’s been some criticism of the lo-fi approach of the effects, and that makes me laugh because it was always intentional. I wanted the film to be all in camera.”

Kent’s minimalistic portrayal of the Babadook monster might be a wet dream for certain horror fans, but in my personal opinion, I hated it. I wanted more. I’m not someone who needs over stimulation or constant full frontal monster imagery. “Jaws” and “Alien” are more frightening for their forced restraint. But Kent does such an expert job of building suspense, what with the beautiful art in the children’s book, the half-second inserts of the monster in the background, that it demanded some sort of substantial reveal. There is a reveal, I just didn’t like it. When we were meant to climax, we were forcefully restrained. Who likes that?

Kent’s impressive eye for visual storytelling is displayed by Amelia’s moments of slumber. A very early Hitchcock image where she floats down onto the bed is at once dreamy and nightmarish. Later, sleep is no longer a fantastical elaborate camera move but a static image. Through Amelia’s insomnia, we see her barely coherent, almost comatose as she watches television all night. I can feel how tired she is. I’ve been there. It’s a feeling of mental instability. Lack of sleep is real life, real pain, and everyday torture. It’s a major subplot for Amelia’s character.

Kent’s direction and Davis’ performance are flawless from scene to scene on just what a woman would really feel at varying stages of insomnia: at moments she has frustrated outbursts of rage and other times she is in a sort of loopy bliss when she nods off despite her son asking her to make him something to eat. I feel the pain and I feel the bliss of giving up.

On an aside, I was impressed with the design on the character’s hairdos by the hair and makeup department. Early shots of Amelia show her hair unkempt and staticy. So is her son’s. She looks tired and not put together. Later, at her niece’s birthday party, we see a group of mothers the same age as the tired Amelia, but they all look impeccable, well rested, happy, and thematically significant, they have great hair perfectly in place.

My biggest problem with the movie, aside from the monster reveal, is the resolution. I find it pretentious, too on-the-nose, and anti-climactic for a movie that brilliantly builds towards a reveal. The pacing is flawless. The attention to craft and mood is expert. But I find the final series of “monster point-of-view” shots of Amelia literally feeding the beast locked away in her basement (see why I say it’s pretentious?) rather dull. In fact, when the screen cuts to black after a way-too-nostalgic resolution shot of Amelia hugging tight to her problem child, I found myself infuriated as I awaited the first credit title card to confirm my suspicions that yep, that’s it.

Syvology on the MIshka NYC Bloglin said the film’s ending reminds the viewer that such matters continually exists in the “basement” of the unconscious and are “dealt with as-needed.” The “basement of the unconscious” being represented by an actual basement is as subtle as a drunk pervert.

But I digress because certainly I’m bitching about an overall good movie. I recently praised “It Follows” for its personal horror and emotionally fused story. “The Babadook” does this even more masterfully I think. But, “It Follows” had a better ending with its hokey booby trap at the pool hall.

My feelings for “The Babadook” are mostly positive and focused on the craftsmanship of a character driven horror story. But I didn’t “love” the movie. My demand for a big reveal, a real scary moment at the end, is lowbrow. But I stick to it.

I’m a filmmaker so I analyze movies more than most. I can’t always sit back and enjoy a movie the way I did growing up, when I loved whatever my mom took me to see at the Franklin Mills theatre across the street.

“The Babadook” had me gripped and waiting for the payoff the way I used to as a kid in a matinee showing, sitting in the dark and sharing a small popcorn with my mom. I eagerly waited for an inspired closer. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it. Despite all of my appreciation for the craftsmanship, I was still that kid in the movie theatre, a little older, as the credits rolled and the lights went up. I looked over to my mom and asked, “what did you think?” And she shrugged her shoulders and said “it was okay.”

The Babadook

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