Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #330
Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 17, 2014 (Sundance), May 22, 2014 (Australia)
Country of Origin: Australia
Box Office: $4,900,000
Running Time: 94 minutes
Director: Jennifer Kent
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Special Effects: Dale Bamford
Visual Effects: Marty Pepper
Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk
Score: Jed Kurzel
Editing: Simon Njoo
Studio: Causeway Films, Smoking Gun Productions
Distributor: Cinetic Media, eOne Films International, IFC Films
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Tim Purcell, Michelle Nightingale, Cathy Adamek, Hayley McElhinney, Peta Shannon, Craig Behenna, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West
Suggested Audio Candy
Jed Kurzel “The Babadook”
There’s nothing like a little childhood trauma to wire a youngster for terror. As an infant I found my dose of the willies in the form of late-night horror movies and somehow managed to surreptitiously soak in far more than is customary for one of such tender years. As a result, I scoped out my bedside closet and checked beneath my bed religiously before so much as testing my mattress springs each night. It’s amazing what kind of mortifying monstrosities young minds can conjure up and, mine being more far-reaching than most, the boogeyman in question looked not altogether unlike the terrorizer in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. It’s a small wonder that I ever slept a wink.
This marks Kent’s first full-length foray into filmmaking and, on this evidence, I don’t expect her future exploits to necessarily consist of horror. Make no mistake, there is plenty horrifying about The Babadook and there may be few films you will watch this year that will crawl about beneath your skin with quite the ease that her film does once it nestles in. However, it is a far different creature than what most will be expecting, and is more distressing character study than out-and-out scream carnival. Speaking of testing out your vocal chords, you may well be encouraged from your skin on numerous occasions but much of that impact depends on just how much you buy into night terrors. As for Keeper, well it stands to reason that I would have stakeholding shares in them.
The Babadook tells the story of single parent Amelia (Essie Davis) and her troubled six-year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel’s very existence is a minor miracle, considering the car crash which claimed her partner’s life as the couple made their way to the hospital to birth the little blighter left his mother’s whole world in tatters. Evidently, coping is about all she can muster and she barely does that with any great degree of conviction. From the offset she looks bedraggled, lackluster and entirely devoid of contentment. Her job as a nurse is hanging by a slender thread, as is her relationship with her own sister, while Samuel’s increasingly erratic behavior and over-active imagination are beginning to wear down her one remaining nerve. She can’t even use her vibrator in peace on account of her son’s incessant night terrors and her life has become an existence in the most tenuous sense.
Enter Mister Babadook (anagram of A Bad Book ironically), a children’s storybook of sorts, presented in pop-up format and containing only a few lines of verse which she finds mysteriously propped on his book shelf. Hoping that it may help alleviate Samuel’s nocturnal disquietude and afford her some desperately needed bed rest herself, she reads him the nursery rhyme. Needless to say, it has the precise opposite effect, tainting his already fragile mind with its crude depictions of an improbably tall man in a black top hat with wisping elongated fingernails which appear ideally designed to strip the flesh off six-year olds. And so begin the sleepless nights. Samuel’s behavior becomes decidedly more disconcerting and he invests his free time concocting slingshots and the like as though possessed by the soul of Kevin Bannister, in the eventuality that Mister Babadook comes a “ba Ba ba DOOK DOOK DOOK-ing.”
There are parallels with the great Roman Polanski (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby), particularly come the final act when we are incarcerated almost entirely within the house as the walls begin closing in on our psyches. Even more critical than Samuel’s spiraling plight is Amelia’s own descent into madness. She begins to exhibit loathing towards her son, spewing forth vitriol and looking at him with distinctly un-mommy-like eyes and it becomes painfully clear that she blames him, on at least a subconscious level, for the tragedy that has befallen her. Davis gives an astonishing transformative performance, see-sawing along her tether and spilling over more and more frequently into psychotic outbursts which suggest the hinges of her mind are approaching snapping point. What is most significant is that she is effectively both victim and villain, fluctuating wildly from one moment to the next, yet we still wish for her safe-keeping. This proves quite the balancing act and the excellent Davis is more than fit for the challenge.
Mister Babadook himself, represents Amelia’s culpability, and is tenebrous and all-encompassing as is the guilt that is asphyxiating her. It is the aftermath of her loss, the void left behind after her son’s father was unceremoniously erased from family photos, and therein lays the true terror it cites. Here is a tale which is as much of a metaphor for personal trauma and study of the frailty of the human condition, as it is a supernatural blood-chiller; less Insidious and more The Orphanage if you will. There is all manner of bogus imagery on-hand and it is all beautifully exaggerated using the shadows which hang hauntingly from all four corners of the screen. However, for the most discomforting sensation, delve into Amelia’s fragmented mindset and you’ll find a place far more ominous and uncertain.
Considering Wiseman wasn’t present for the filming of Davis’ numerous rants, his performance is surprisingly natural and his character’s story arc just as pronounced as hers. You’ll likely spend the lion’s share of the opening act slapping the leather side of your slipper against your palm praying to catch Samuel’s face with a fortuitous ricochet but, as mom begins to buckle under the strain, he begins to resemble less of a gargoyle and takes on the role of protector as best as a small child possibly can when in possession of a dart gun and a length of string. Kent was very much aware of the psychological damage that Amelia’s scathing contempt could have on her child actor and cradled him from the film’s true meaning as this kind of experience would likely turn him to crystal meth after enduring the torrent of abuse Davis sends his way. When you consider that William Friedkin stated that he has never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook, Kent’s kit-gloved approach may well have spared Wiseman his childhood.
The Babadook is widely regarded as the best horror film to emerge among the 2014 roster and, whilst I wasn’t prepared to quite suck its dick to this extent, it’s certainly the most affecting so perhaps I should be wearing my chap-stick after all. Whether or not it terrifies you depends squarely on two factors. An over-active imagination helps; should you still check beneath your valance before you slumber then you’ll be regimenting your routine for the foreseeable. What is most critical is the ability to look a little closer into Amelia’s paternal estrangement from her own flesh and blood, relate, and imagine your own Babadooks. Constantly facing our own demons can be an exhausting process and often the best option is to marshal them, acknowledge their existence and compartmentalize accordingly. For added poignancy to my point, allow The Babadook to wash over you like the merciless black sea that it is and you’ll find a small darkened cubbyway in your mind where Mister Babadook will take up residency perpetually.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Dread Factor: 5/5
For the Dread-Heads: “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook. If you’re a really clever one and you know what it is to see, then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me. His name is Mister Babadook and this is his book. A rumbling sound then three sharp knocks, ba-Ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! That’s when you’ll know that he’s around, You’ll see him if you look. This is what he wears on top, he’s funny don’t you think? See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink. I’ll soon take off my funny disguise (take heed of what you’ve read…) and once you see what’s underneath YOU’RE GOING TO WISH YOU WERE DEAD” Now put yourself in Samuel’s shoes and you too will be afforded the exclusive ability to shit through the eye of a needle. As scary as you allow it to be.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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