Monday, June 30, 2014

The Babadook (2014): Motherhood is hard

The Babadook (2014)
dir: Jennifer Kent

SIFF 2014 Film #25

Raising a kid is hard. Raising a kid as a grief-stricken single mother is harder. Harder still is when your kid is going through a violently hyperactive strange phase and doesn't mesh well with the other kids, causing you to be isolated from all the social groups you used to belong to.

Such is the premise of the new Australian horror movie, The Babadook, a film about the things that go bump in the night in your head. The Babadook is a genuinely creepy horror movie from first-time director, Jennifer Kent, which completely takes you by surprise and can make you freak out yourself. The young guy behind me was crying and practically hyperventilating by the end of the movie, and the audience I saw it with was pretty much enraptured in the movie. The less you know about The Babadook, the better it is. It's not gory, and is one of those old-school horror movies with a slow burn like The Omen (attention Ti West, this is how it's actually done), and once you feel the film's icy grip wrap around you, it doesn't let go until it's almost over. It's not slick or even all that polished, but it works all the better for it. Stop Reading. Now. Go see it.

You've been warned.

Amelia is a single mother frequently plagued by nightmares of the car crash she was in on her way to the hospital which took the life of her husband. Now, her son's birthday is the same as the anniversary of her husband's death, thus ensuring that her son is a constant reminder of her dead husband. Seven years later, Amelia's son, Samuel, is guilty of being a hyperactive boy with an overactive imagination. He has nightmares about the things that goes bump in the night, creates weapons to protect him and his mother, has screaming temper tantrums, and otherwise acts out to test his boundaries. When his school needs to further isolate Sam from his peers due to a homemade weapon he brings to school, his mother has to pull him out of school and keep him at home, fighting to keep her job as a nurse at a nursing home.

Further complicating measures is Amelia's sister, Claire, who is increasingly tired of Claire's depression and inability to deal with the death of her husband. "It's been seven years," Claire semi-justly observes regarding Amelia's feelings. Claire's daughter had been born close enough to Samuel's birthday to have joint parties, but far enough to be distanced from the memory of Amelia's husband.

One night, at bedtime, Samuel discovers a book called Mister Babadook, which seems like a well drawn pop-up children's story in the vein of Edward Gorey. The Babadook is a dark figure which comes knocking at the door, then haunts whoever denies that it exists. Mister Babadook gives Sam nightmares, and he believes that The Babadook exists even talking to thin air when it's not around. Amelia tries destroying the book, but it keeps returning to haunt her and her son.

First-time director Jennifer Kent is wise enough to know that what scares us in the middle of the night isn't the scary things that go bump, but the things that run through our head. Whether its the death of a husband, the fear that we're not able to provide for our family, or that we're not good enough, smart enough, popular enough, rich enough, all of these things fully take hold in our subconscious as we lay ourselves to sleep. These are the fears which, if strong enough, can keep somebody up at night. By making a monster movie where the monster is a pure metaphorical manifestation of the character's insecurities and aggression, Kent has made a horror movie that resonates with everybody.

Kent has also taken the extra step of making Samuel as annoying as possible. He isn't lovable. He is as annoying as all of the people say he is. Amelia isn't delusional about Samuel. Neither is anybody else. He's a child that would drive anybody to their wits end. When Amelia starts lashing out at Samuel, the audience feels she's justified because of Samuel's terrible behavior. When she lashes out at anybody she interacts with, it's because they're acting rather badly themselves. The Babadook is able to put you in the isolated mindset of Amelia who has refused to deal with her grief by putting on a strong face and praying for the best. Better still, Samuel isn't just an annoying brat, he's somebody who is starting to realize the full weight of the absence of his father. He starts wanting to know who his father is, something that has been denied to him by Amelia because she still hasn't dealt with her own loss, and is unable to broach the subject without breaking down.

The best horror is rooted in real-life tragedy. The Babadook has that in spades. It's a brilliant, frightening, intelligent horror movie that should hopefully make it's mark in the horror landscape.

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