Monday, December 08, 2014

The Babadook (Jenifer Kent, 2014)

In many ways, this story has been around for centuries. The basic plot of an item of some kind being a gateway/prison for something evil, parasitic and malignant isn't new. The Renaissance and the dawn of the Age of Reason saw books becoming a primary carrier for these supernatural infections. That some terrible thing might be released by reading a book has been a staple of Western horror since.

The reason these kinds of stories continue to exist is that their basic, simple structure lends itself to retelling from almost any perspective. With a little ingenuity, they can still be something different than the hundreds of other versions that have preceded them. The Babadook is one of the most sharply written and directed versions of this story that has been around for a while.

It's extremely disciplined, cutting storytelling. Beyond it's familiar, simple set up lies something much heavier and carries a heavier impact. It is an encapsulation of the fears of every single parent. There are a few aspects that are probably more specific to single mothers, but any single parent would identify with the horror this film is really laying bare. They are probably fears every parent has, but would only be intensified at the prospect of being a single parent, the kinds of things that will keep people from divorce and in a bad marriage because of the fears of what single parenthood will be. In more ways than not, it's about the fears and emotional life of being a single mother, and it is in that reality that the horror of the whole story really blooms.

Pan's Labyrinthe, The Devil's Backbone, and The Orphanage are all horror films that have an emotionally resonant core. Where they tend to deal with innocence and childhood, The Babadook deals with the loss of innocence that is being a single mother. It is as emotionally charged as the best of the horror films Guillermo Del Toro has either written and directed or produced, but it reaches for those emotions in a very different way. Where those films reached for them through sentimentality, adventure and discovery, The Babadook reaches for them through the very grinding world of the everyday. This films doesn't rely on turning your stomach to be the source of its horror, it relies on grabbing your heart and squeezing it while setting off every possible psychological alarm bell it can. It's creepy, disturbing and pushes some very primal buttons, but not once does it seem forced or as if it's trying to hard.

Essie Davis plays Amelia, mother to Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Essie Davis carries this film in a performance the film it needed in order to succeed. Like the storytelling, it's honest, disciplined, and displays an excellent understanding of the line between being able to reach intense emotions and being over the top. As a team, writer/director Jennifer Kent and lead Essie Davis have created something that is a deeply creepy, disturbing, intense and emotionally charged experience. What she brings to the film gives it everything it needs to work, and Jennifer Kent tells the story in a way that is efficient, but that it still has enough breathing room to feel like it's unrolling in front of you organically.

There is a sense of the extreme and emotionally repulsive that is so well honed that instead of pushing the audience out of the story and into a focus on their own discomfort, it draws them further in. Make no mistake, The Babadook has some gut wrenching scenes that are part of what the more hard core of horror fans are looking for, but none of them come from some kind of graphic physical violence or injury. It has some shocking moments, but the intention is always about more than just being shocking. All of them are coming from a kind of emotional core that makes this film anything but generic, cheap and lazy. On top of that core, it layers a creepy dread, some intensely scary moments and works its themes throughout the story with a deft hand.

The art direction and set direction are underlying components of what add to the films success. The environment is palpable but never steps in becoming a character. It's a thing lurking around the rest of the story, adding to the atmosphere the script creates, and the general tenor of each scene. The book itself is the foremost example. It is both credible as a children's book in it's use of language and its drawings and art, but deeply disturbing at the same time. In many ways, it is the best possible example of the things that make the film successful and give it a unique place in its genre. 

Jennifer Kent and The Babadook deserve to be recognized for something else. There is only the slightest dusting of visual effects. They are so perfectly used and sparingly applied that at absolutely no point do they become part of what gives the film and it's story impact. They heighten the impact when they are used. There are two very different conversations that can happen surrounding visual effects in a film, whether they are digital or practical effects. One is about the quality of the effects and the other is in how they are used. This film brings both of those conversations together by taking the idiom "less is more" to it's furthest logical conclusion. There are effects in the film. What their quality is can't actually be separated from how well they help heighten the sense of dread and creepiness. 

It's the kind of film that will be as effective for cinephiles who are looking for something meaty and smart as it will for someone just looking for a good chiller that will follow them home and give them the creeps when they turn out the lights. It's guaranteed to draw some fire from cultural critics of every possible variety as well, when they get around to finally seeing it. It's certain to be a conversation starter among more analytical audiences. With the exceptions of those who universally dislike horror films, the gorehound sect of the horror community, and anyone who just hates the idea that single parents and single mothers in particular, every other possible audience going to enjoy it. In that lies the films real genius. It never sells out and becomes something that feels generic and impersonal, but it is also able to tell its story in a way that expresses something that is as close to actually being universal as storytelling can get without becoming generic, pandering or manipulatively sentimental. Time will really tell whether or not this is the best horror film of the year, but it deserves to be in the running, and it if the decade between 2010 and 2020 has enough great films in it that The Babadook doesn't make it into that discussion, film goers and horror fans will have been lucky to experience one exceptional decade.

Similar to:
Pan's Labyrinthe 
The Devil's Backbone
The Orphanage
The Taking of Debra Logan
The Possession
Lovely Molly
The Exorcist