I’m “biast” (con): I’m not generally optimistic about horror movies these days
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I’m trying to remember the last time an actual, straight-up horror film frightened me. And… I got nuthin’. The Cabin in the Woods comes close, but that was scary in ways that were about undercutting traditional horror tropes. The movies that scare the crap out of me tend to be things like the nuclear-war nightmare-inducer Threads, or the lost-at-sea panic attack Open Water.
But now there’s The Babadook, which is, basically, yer standard haunted-house flick with a bit of demonic-ish possession tossed in for spice. Except it’s genuinely horrific and deeply scary. There are momentary shocks here, and then there are the eerie shadows and the prickling-on-the-back-of-your neck ickies that worm their way into your head only to bubble back up when you least expect them. And they are terrible and awful and — because this is only a movie — wonderful and fun not because a random boogeyman created via a focus-grouping of the Top 10 Things That Creep People Out (dolls! clowns! hockey masks!) jumps out at you, but because they draw on the most primal of emotions that we all experience: Loneliness. Frustration (sexual and emotional). Loss. Grief.
The Babadook is a horror flick with rare emotional and psychological resonance, but never in a way that is pretentious or showy. It’s just a damned good scary movie… maybe one of the best ever. And it’s so simple, really. All it does is put a single mom, Amelia (Essie Davis: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Charlotte’s Web), and her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), in the pressure cooker of their own sad, gray, near-empty house; stir in Amelia’s exhaustion and inability to cope with Sam’s constant demands for attention and general little-boy rambunctiousness; and top it all with the palpable absence of Amelia’s husband, Sam’s father, who was killed in a car crash years earlier.
Oh, but I love the ambiguity inherent in what happens next! A spooky kids’ picture book called Mister Babadook appears on Sam’s bedroom shelf — which isn’t so weird at first, because kids always seem to turn up with stuff you’d forgotten they had, and lots of kids’ books are dark and playfully sinister. But the promise of the book — that the Babadook with his long scary claws will come a-knockin’, and that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook” once he arrives — seems to come to pass, with strange noises and odd doings creeping up the house. Of course it escalates from there… but is any of it really “real”? Sam is a hugely imaginative child who is, as the movie opens, preparing to fight off monsters, and Amelia is, on top of her other issues, barely sleeping. Could the visit from the Babadook — who becomes increasingly menacing and dangerous — be “merely” a delusion shared between the two of them? Or is the Babadook an “authentic” boogeyman who found some particularly vulnerable prey?
The beautiful thing about this movie is that either interpretation, and any other along that spectrum, works. While the recent tedious parade of horror films attempt to convince us of the utter concrete reality of their spirits, devils, and monsters — which usually fail to have any palpable credibility anyway — The Babadook succeeds because it underscores how our own personal “demons,” which are both real and imaginary at the same time, are the things that hold the most power over us. How Amelia and Samuel cope with the Babadook is an unforgettable expression of their relationship with each other and with their departed husband and father. And that remains true whether the Babadook is “real” or not.
Didn’t I mention? The Babadook is a low-budget, Kickstarter-supported Australian film, the feature debut of writer and director Jennifer Kent. (It’s based on her short film “Monster,” which you can watch at the film’s official site… though you might want to wait until after you see the longer version.) It’s a great example of how getting away from the male-dominated, throw-money-at-it Hollywood paradigm is what The Movies desperately needs these days.