Thursday, December 11, 2014
The Babadook (2014)
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.
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.
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."