Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Review: The Babadook

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Ben Winspea

Synopsis is here

The horror films I enjoy usually contain what I call an "Exorcist moment". This is a single disquieting scene, sequence or shot that often slips past the major scares, but stains my memories like blood on a carpet. In The Exorcist, the moment in which Father Karras envisions his recently deceased mother on the bed, rarely gets mentioned amongst the pea soup vomit and head spinning, but it is the moment that unsettles me the most. There's something about that moment of disquiet that unnerves me. Something deeply primal.

The Babadook; a debut horror feature by Jennifer Kent, is so in love with primal fears, it's no surprise that it holds its own "Exorcist moment". The film's weary protagonist; Amelia, exhausted from lack of sleep and haunted by the grief of losing her husband, notices a near impossible image during a news report. It's a Lynchian moment played out just around the tipping point of the film. Kent's film had pulled me far enough through the ringer so that when this small moment occurs, I was genuinely spooked. I gained that same sense of unease I felt with Karras' mother. When it comes to scares, for me, it's always the little things.

The Babadook plays little a forgotten gem of yesteryear. Horror now often operates by trying to bamboozle the viewer with successive BOO moments. The Babadook isn't too interested in the cheap thrill. It wants to unsettle, and does so with an impassioned love of older cinema. Its title character is one that harks back to the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and toys with similar psychological themes. Our protagonist Amelia (Davis); is a timid and haunted soul, who is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, who died in an accident while they were on their way to give birth to their son. This mixture of survivor guilt and grief grows within the character like a festering wound. Amelia works in care, but seems repelled by her son. She longs for intimacy, yet is reluctant to allow herself to let go. Suddenly an intensely troubling pop-up book appears in her son's room and then the trouble occurs.

The Babadook feels much like Ringu (1998) or Paperhouse (1988) in that there's a horrid feeling of dread that is difficult to really shake off. The tautly wound performances from its leads keep the film's anxiety levels high, while its ashy grey cinematography and constant tight close ups, not only give the film a sense of texture but a foreboding sense of claustrophobia. This is combined with a screenplay with a strong emphasis on the banality and sadness that comes with loss and economical set pieces that are far more interested in what you thought you saw than what you going to see. If other films were as invested in its humans than its monsters, I feel I'd be scared at the movies more often.