The Dada Book

babadook

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.

babadoo

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.

baba2

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…

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10 Responses to “The Dada Book”

  1. The Babdook also would appear to be related to The Candyman

  2. Yes, the Clive Barker-Bernard Rose movie has a kind of urban legend/folklore idea, and a quasi-real character who can be willed into existence, that relates very much to The Babadook.

  3. VERY exciting news — of course, it feels like we have been here before, but this seems more specific and corroborated and real. I’m crossing all my remaining fingers.

  4. F here – And back to The Babadook. I felt that the most disturbing moments were when the mother verbally lashes out at her son. Also, the more I’ve mulled the film over, the more impressed I am by it. I was the one who pointed out that the denouement may be unique in its approach to its main subject matter. It’s an incredibly auspicious feature debut. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

  5. Shane Danielsen Says:

    Daniel Henshall might be little—I met him once: he’s not tall—but he’s not the little boy: that’s Noah Wiseman. Henshall, a grown man, is also the smiling, avuncular psychopath from ‘Snowtown.’

    I also think it’s pretty terrific, though feel compelled to note that (as I said to a friend who was rather less impressed, calling it ‘a shit Shining’) it’s not a horror film; it’s a movie about postpartum depression that uses horror-movie conventions as an organising principle.

  6. F here – I sort of agree with you about it not being a horror film. I said on the way home, “It wears its horror movie raiments very lightly.” Couldn’t quite call what she’s suffering from as postpartum depression since he’s seven, but she’s definitely dealing with unresolved grief. I also felt it was more of an art house film that had somehow found its way into multiplexes.

  7. D here – I think a horror movie should always be about something other than genre conventions — vampires and zombies are alsways symbolic at some level — so I think a monstrous embodiment of grief is quite suitable for a horror film. Where it gets bold is the way the characters find a way to make a truce with the menace rather than killing or being killed. You CAN’T get rid of the Babadook.

    I have fallen victim to movies’ continuing and, to me, incomprehensible tendency to bury the kids’ names down the cast list. Little Noah is now in place. He should have been second-billed to begin with.

  8. Shane Danielsen Says:

    Yes, this is what impressed my wife: the fact that the thing is always in the cellar. You can’t defeat or dispel it; you can only negotiate with it—on a daily and perpetual basis.

    As we walked out of a (nearly empty) screening in Sydney, she also observed that it was going to have its work cut out for it, commercially, since it was, as Fiona says, essentially an arthouse movie being marketed as a horror flick. Alas, so it proved. But I can’t overstate the lack of interest in Australian films among Australian audiences right now. They’ve been burned too many times to shell out $20 a ticket on something that, chances are, will blow. With the result that even the two best films of the year here—this one, and Josh Lawson’s comedy ‘The Little Death’—have sunk without trace.

  9. Scottish and Irish films are having the same trouble. Which is tough, because typically you have to do well on your home turf to get a shot anywhere else. At least the movie is getting a good slot at Halloween, where I would expect it to do well here.

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