Monday, December 15, 2014

The Babadook - Why can't all horror films be this scary?

"The Babadook" has been inaugurated by just about every critic out there to be "the scariest movie of 2014".  The fact they're right, and that a small independent Australian horror film made for two million dollars is the scariest movie of the year - by a wide margin - should be a damning humiliation to the modern Hollywood horror scene.  You'd think after they release dozens of scary movies every year, made for far more money by veteran directors, that we would be terrified every weekend.  But we're not.  Horror has become the dumpster of the film world.  The average found footage film or crappy slasher has only slightly more credibility than porn - and none of the visceral thrills.

The crazy thing is that "The Babadook" really does not do much differently in terms of horror craft.  I cannot say there was much in this film that I have not seen in dozens of other scary stories.  You take a naturally creepy concept, such as an evil boogie man figure, isolate your characters, and slowly increase the tension.  It's a basic formula, yet one that so many films seem incapable of grasping.  "As Above, So Below"* had a naturally terrifying plot:  trap your characters in the French catacombs and then force them to trek down into Hell itself.  However, it was lazily made, unable to reach even the basics.  "The Babdook" achieves that elementary score, and it goes far beyond.

But what makes "The Babadook" advanced is not it's capable terror or that freaky grinning bastard in a top hat.  It is a great movie because it uses horror to build up a fantastic and gripping character drama.  Too many assure that just because horror is a trashy genre that it cannot have the dramatic weight of other genres.  They are wrong, and "The Babadook" does everything any other drama does:  it has compelling characters with real flaws and an interpersonal conflict that is tearing them apart.  It even features two of the best performances from any kind of movie in 2014.  "The Babadook" is a desperately human tragedy, with the fears and loneliness of it's characters heightened by the things that go bump in the night.

I have never been a father, but raising children is a part of my life that I am greatly looking forward to... in the future.  (Ladies, you'll just have to wait a bit longer.)  But I know that raising children is an exhausting prospect.  It isn't just the cliché stand-up comedian complaints about losing your social life and being bogged down by your family's constant demands.  It can go very badly.  There is nothing more frightening for a parent that to realize your child is badly damaged in a way that you cannot fix with just a kiss to make it all better.  What's worse, while you may love your child, there is a point of emotional paralysis where you can come to resent them and their problems.  It's a horrifying thought to imagine hating your little boy or girl, the creature you're here to protect on this Earth.  But sometimes you just cannot be the person who can lead them through their troubles.  What can you do in that kind of situation?

Home sweet nightmare.
"The Babadook"'s main character is Amelia (Essie Davis), a single healthcare worker who is raising her willful six-year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after her husband was killed in a car accident.  This is a trying situation for any parent, and Amelia is nearly broken down by her own grief and her son's emotional problems.  Her hair is ragged and stringy, her cloths are cheap and basic - this woman needs a vodka, a makeover, and a good humping BADLY.  Samuel has leveraged his entire psyche into clinging onto his mother, and she is cut off from the entire world aside from a bitchy distant sister.  However, things are only going to get worse.  Samuel gets expelled from kindergarten, he's getting into fights, he's  obsessed with his dead father... oh, and he has an imaginary friend called the Babadook.

It begins one night at bedtime, when Amelia is going to read Samuel a nice story.  He picks out a red velvet pop-out book from his bookcase, "The Babadook".  It's innocent enough.  Until you turn the first page, when you realize this thing has been written by Maurice Sendak while on a very nasty acid trip.  It is sketched together with black and white, with grinning demonic figures dominating little weak children.  Samuel comes to believe that the Babadook, a cheerful Victorian fellow with razor sharp claws ever draped in shadow, has possessed his world and will never let him and his mother go.  As time goes by, and Samuel gets worse, Amelia herself starts to believe in this unwanted house guest as well.

There is a very clever and subtle switch on perspectives in "The Babadook".  Where Amelia goes from being your sympathetic character trying her hardest to work with a weird kid to Amelia descending into a far more destructive and horrifying madness.  The longer this film goes on, the more you start to understand the dynamic between these characters.  A horror movie need not only use hellspawn to creep out it's audience, sometimes every day neglect and depression can be just as disturbing.

Somehow I don't think Babadook plush dolls are going to be the holiday season's big ticket item.
"The Babadook" does not look cheap from initial viewing, but a careful study of the film's limited locations and characters shows just how effectively a small budget can be spent.  Nothing about the film's shot composition, deliberate use of monochrome colors mixed with blues says second-tier filmmaking.  Nothing about decorating the film with antique appliances giving a bizarre sense of timelessness says this a movie undeserving of general audience attention.  There's a difference between being low-budget and looking cheap.  Other films of 2014 have had similar small budgets but were made by far less competent or interested directors, coming off as barely TV-movie quality.  I can't call "The Babadook" a work of visual splendor like "Interstellar", but it easily manages to hold up with any other horror film made for far more money.

What's more impressive than the pedigree of filmmaking is the acting.  When you have a very small claustrophobic movie, ultimately it's going to be your leads that will make or break your film.  That is made all the more daring when one of your key actors is a small child.  I am very impressed with little Noah Wiseman, who had to play around in sets and with props that scare me, and I'm about four times his age.  He's a brilliant little actor with what I hope is a bright future.  Essie Davis, however, is still more impressive, putting together a feast of a performance.  Davis is called to play just about every human emotion:  fear, longing, depression, before finally going a full Jack Torrence and becoming a wretched villain perhaps more awful than the Babadook itself.  She pulls it off.

There is no need for discussion on how scary "The Babadook" is - it's a scary motherfucking movie.  However, there will probably be some disappointment in the conclusion.  Partially because "The Babadook" avoids ever fully showing its monster, a mistake which has collapsed other films completely**.  But also because some audiences might take the ending a bit too literally.  I will not go too deeply into spoilers, but there are a lot of subtle details in "The Babadook" which may be missed upon first viewing.  For example, Amelia is at one point referenced to have been a failed writer.  What genre did she write in?  Children's books.

Who is the Babadook really?
I know it's fashionable to bemoan the death of horror in film.  I'm probably as guilty as anybody when it comes to complaining about the quality of today's horror films.  Don't blame me too badly, I've seen every "Paranormal Activity", I did not put this chip up on my shoulder all alone.  But when really great movies like the "The Babadook" come out, which are so good that even critics who usually hate horror films have to admit this is one of the best films of 2014, you really cannot be too dissatisfied with how the genre is doing.  There might be more crap than ever, but there are still going to be movies that will give you the chills.  There will still be movies that will make you uncomfortable, and maybe scream at yourself for being so stupid as to put this thing on, while squeezing a loved one for dear life.

You know you are not going to have good dreams after watching "The Babadook".  You can't get rid of the Babadook.

* One of many movies that came out in 2014 which were far too bland for me to even bother reviewing.  I really cannot justify writing a review for every movie I see now if I cannot come up with an original thing to say about them.  I made this point before with "As Above, So Below":  it doesn't work.  And it fails on such simple levels (you don't care about the characters, it can't ramp up the horror properly, nothing in Hell is really all that interesting as it turns out) that why even discuss it?  Nobody else is - it has already fallen into the basement of forgotten horror crap along with "The Pyramid" and "Devil's Due".

** "Mama" comes to mind here.


  1. Truly one of the greatest horror films to come out in a long time. I'm glad it's been getting some good recognition, definitely well-deserved. Hope this movie goes far.

  2. Question: If bubadook had a bubadook would you dook it?