Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK is getting lots of favorable attention, and the low-budget Australian horror deserves it, though we weren’t wholly captivated. But the minus side — too much generic running around, recycling of tropes from Mario Bava’s SHOCK and THE SHINING*, neglecting the unique possibilities of its original ideas, like the scary pop-up book — is pretty well balanced by some strong pluses.
I’m going to play the game of not spoiling the storyline, but you might pick up hints from the following, and if you want to see the film with a virginal mind, see it first before reading the rest.
The title is really delightful — Fiona was convinced she’d heard this word before, which is testament to the word-sound’s grip on the collective unconscious. It’s like onomatopoeia for something that doesn’t exist.
The performances, particularly the two leads, are just extraordinary. Little
Daniel Henshall Noah Wiseman has one of those wildly expressive, photogenic faces, eyes like fishbowls, porcelain skin, and disconcerting FANGS (like he hasn’t quite grown into his teeth, or like they just grew into him) — he transfixes the camera. Essie Davis as his mum is just perfect too, maintaining sympathy as long as possible as things start to get really, really bad.
The movie is playing an elaborate game with the genres of psychological and supernatural horror, so expect some slide between believing the Babadook is a real monster and thinking it’s all in the mind. Some of this journey is rocky, with promising avenues closed off too soon, and the part of the film where it comes down strongly on one side gets kind of dull and uninvolving — we feel we’ve lost sympathy, and for all the running around, this can only end really badly, which is depressing. But then the movie pulls off an eleventh-hour recovery and goes somewhere quite unexpected and possibly unique in the genre.
Fiona: “Magicians are scary. Child magicians are very scary.”
Basically, the Babadook — a crow-like caped man with dagger-like fangs, somewhat Tim Burton-like — also a mysterious hand-crafted children’s book with some highly inappropriate content — comes to have a very clear metaphorical significance. He’s the embodiment of a repressed emotion, and ultimately the way of dealing with him seems quite apt and may even have helpful real-world applications for the viewer. Grief isn’t dealt with by violence, and it can’t be effectually shut away and forgotten, and it is a dark, all-consuming monster… I can say no more.
The movie has a jittery, juddery, propulsive editing style which keeps you nervous most of the time. Mom walks towards the front door — the sound of the door opening breaks in before she gets there — we cut to her midway through opening the door, now shot from outside — which smooths over the jumps just enough to feel like smooth continuity, but has an undercurrent of nervous anticipation. This is kept up, which means the film doesn’t get to creep us out much with slow, building suspense, but it’s also a world away from the traditional, conventional 1-2-3-BOO! approach of teen horror. It has its limitations but it’s at least a fresh approach.
*Anyone who has seen LET US PREY, co-written by Fiona & I, will be able to point triumphantly to a lot of SHINING-influenced business in that one, but we already have our answer worked out, which is to deny all responsibility for anything you don’t like, okay? As long as we can take credit for anything you DO like. The ultimate powerlessness of the screenwriter has to confer SOME advantages…