The Babadook (2014)

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Directed by Jennifer Kent
Written by Jennifer Kent

Rated R

Essie Davis as Amelia
Noah Wiseman as Samuel
as Daniel Henshall as Robbie
Hayley McElhinney as Claire
Barbara West as Mrs. Roach
Benjamin Winspear as Oska

Watching The Babadook reminded me there are several kinds of moviegoers. This film is billed as horror film, so many audiences are expecting … what? The Conjuring? The Descent? Saw? The Human Centipede? Jennifer Kent's film has near-universal acclaim, with a staggering 98% on Rotten Tomatoes' website. Legendary director William Friedkin (yep, the man who directed the 1973 horror masterpiece The Exorcist) claims it is the most terrifying film he's ever seen, even comparing it to Psycho, Alien, and Diabolique. I had a feeling going into The Babadook that I would enjoy it. Would other filmgoers expecting a popcorn and thrills genre pic feel the same? I guess this remains to be seen.

However, I had the misfortune of watching the film with a friend who was expecting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or something along those lines. He complained the film was boring and didn't move along fast enough. No action, little violence, you know … a 2014 horror film. Well, I can appreciate wanting a horror movie to be a little something more, like jumping out of your seats every time there is a GOTCHA! moment when a machete-wielding serial killer jumps out of the shadows. But truly, do those moments really scare us anymore? Aren't they more predictable than frightening?

Kent's film opens with single mother Amelia (Essie Davis, in a mesmerizing performance) reflecting on her circumstances. We see her being rushed to the hospital to deliver her first child. Flash forward seven years later, and her husband is dead, killed in that very same trip to the hospital. Amelia's son, Samuel, is in elementary school, and the kid is a spitfire. He has behavioral problems, and Amelia is alerted by the school officials because has brought a weapon to school. Amelia is grievously concerned, and Samuel is not welcomed back to the school. Kent makes us aware that Amelia is hanging on by a thread, a mother's instinctive love for her child, rather than a deep and heartfelt connection to the boy.

Samuel (Noah Wiseman) would not be easy to love. He's overly rambunctious, and it is clear he must have attention deficit issues. He is constantly fearing menacing monsters by whom he feels threatened, and his energy allows for little sleep for Amelia. One day he asks Amelia to read to him from "Mister Babadook," a pop-up book that Samuel found on one of his shelves. The book portends grisly events to come, and Mister Babadook is a creepy, ominous monster. This is certainly no ordinary children's book. Soon, Samuel begins to fear Mister Babadook, claiming the monster is very real. Has Samuel manifested the monster due to his behavioral disorder? Or is it due to Amelia's distance, still stricken by grief, all these years later. An even more disturbing consideration: has Amelia's suppressed grief/guilt manifested the creature itself? Childlike faith can be fearless, more open to see the world as it is. Adults, you know, get bogged down by the logic and conditioning we are expected to conform to in order to be stable contributions to society as we know it.

Wiseman is every bit Davis's equal, delivering a performance that deserves Oscar consideration (remember the accolades piled on Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense? The Babadook is a far more frightening story, without the slick surprise ending). You will believe this child when he vocalizes his fears of Mister Babadook, despite your intellectual senses that such a creature would only exist in the tortured imagination of a disturbed child. When it began to dawn on me that this child's love for his mother was the true doorway that allowed the monster to enter, I slowly understood where Kent's film was going … thus, terror ensues.

Viewers want to know if they ever see this monster, Mister Babadook? Do we ever. Word of caution: don't blink in this film. For if you do, you may miss some of the most terrifying, disturbing scenes. The monster's appearance is not gratuitous. In comparison, remember how The Descent began as a psychological terror story, then once the creatures appeared, we saw little else? A rare example of bloody gore used to astonishing effect. The Conjuring was also a highly effective horror film, relying less on gore and more on genuine scares. The Babadook has almost no bloody scenes, but when the scenes become intense, they will burn in your memory. What Kent is able to elicit in genuine scares is brilliant, for she does so by showing so little.

Yes, The Babadook falls a bit short of getting a perfect review. The pacing can be a bit sluggish, and I would have enjoyed feeling more frightened. But I did think about this film long after I'd seen it, which is more than most horror films inspire. The acting of Davis and Wiseman would be, should be remembered at awards time - there'd be no doubt if the genre were not horror. The Babadook is among the most elegant of scary films - I don't know if I'd compare it to Psycho or Alien, though such comparisons are high praise. I kept thinking of Nicolas Roeg's 1973 masterpiece (yes, I'm aware I've used that word twice in describing two films from the same year, but hey - it is what it is) Don't Look Now, another thoughtful, devastating, terrifying meditation on death, grief, suppressed guilt, and the manifestation of one's own destiny when forcing death to deepest corners of our minds. Deal with it head-on, or the little figure in a red raincoat (disguised as anything that masks our deepest fears) will be waiting.

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