Tuesday, January 6, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#6: "The Babadook" is a Promising Sign for the Future of Horror

This is the sixth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

"See? There's nothing in the closet." And she's right! No monsters show up and the movie is over the end.

I love horror movies. And when I say horror, I don't mean the disgusting, gory torture porn that seems to overcrowd the genre these days, I mean classic horror movies. Everyone reacts differently to horror films-- some are definitely more scared than others, and some don't actually enjoy the feeling of being scared. But for most there is something wonderful about being scared. When we are scared, it heightens our emotional response, which can allow the horror genre to achieve a reaction that other genres simply cannot hope to reach as easily. The problem is that most horror films today are simply not scary. The horror genre has become the genre of cheap filmmaking--the rise of found footage, anthology films, and the aforementioned torture porn means that more horror films are being made than ever before, but it also means that those films are not as good. They're not good films in general, and they're also not good as horror films specifically--films like the Saw franchise are, frankly, not scary, they're just disgusting. And films like Paranormal Activity  which derive their horror primarily from jump scares simply do not have a lasting effect. The fear is short-lived. The Silence of the Lambs might not make you jump, but it will continue to creep you out years later. Which is why I was so excited to see The Babadook--an outstanding first feature film from Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent which has instantly launched her career, and which is a return to form for the horror genre more than any other horror film I've seen in recent memory.

Essie Davis as a soft-spoken but fierce mother in The Babadook.

The Babadook follows a grieving widow named Amelia (Essie Davis, an Australian actress who I predict will be a bona fide star in about five years) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who are haunted by a menacing creature named Mister Babadook. As horror films of late tend to rehash familiar monsters, one of the most refreshing parts of this film is that Mister Babadook is an original character. And not just an original character, but one that feels like an immediate classic. You immediately get a grasp of this character and the threat it delivers. Mister Babadook feels familiar because, in many ways, he is a manifestation of childhood fears. He's a modern-day bogeyman, a manifestation of those creatures the nightlight wards off, the thing hiding under the bed. In fact, his arrival is heralded by three thumping noises-- he is literally a thing that goes bump in the night. But everything about Mister Babadook has its origins in the realm of childhood. His origin is from a pop-up book (albeit one that mysteriously appears and cannot be destroyed) and his appearance is a somewhat cartoony and silly mask. Even the name Babadook sounds pretty childish--a sort of silly gibberish word a kid would come up with.

Babadook is also an anagram of "A Bad Book." Which implies that the book might be evil. That and the fact that it can unleash a monstrous hellbeast that will tear your family apart.

These childlike qualities extend to the film itself. One of the biggest differences between more grown-up scary stories and more childlike ones is that they are grounded in reality. If a horror film geared towards adults features ghoulies or ghosties or long-leggedy beasties, the film always has to jump over the hurdle of skepticism. There has to be the discussion of someone going "This isn't real." And the filmmaking supports this. Even if we know that the film will feature real-life zombies, the script usually tries to keep us in the dark--leaving the question of whether or not they're really zombies as ambiguous as possible for as long as possible. It's a strange exercise, grounded in the notion that "adults do not believe in monsters." But stories for children deal in the realm of more traditional ghost stories. They exist in the world of fantasy, and so the idea that a monster exists can be more readily accepted. No skepticism needs to be assuaged, no requisite dismissing of the rules that define reality has to be done. It's a ghost story. And The Babadook is, refreshingly, a straightforward ghost story. There's a monster, it haunts our main characters, and then they defeat it (kind of). The brilliance of the monster coming from a book is that he comes with a built in modus operandi--when Amelia reads "Mister Babadook" to her son, she tells the audience exactly what is going to happen in the film. So, the question of "what will happen" is easy to follow. The excitement and horror The Babadook exists in how these events unfold. And, when we know our monster's next move, it instills the film with a sense of dread that would not have existed otherwise.

The true moral of this movie is "Don't read."

But, the star of The Babadook is not the monster, it is Amelia herself, and the film charts her descent into madness. Played with raw emotion and tremendous power by Davis, Amelia is an initially soft-spoken and kind woman, Amelia becomes more wide-eyed and crazy in both behavior and appearance, with her hair growing wilder and wilder in every scene. In The New Yorker's review of the film, Anthony Lane (who I'm convinced has never given a positive review to a single film before this one) writes a wonderful paragraph on how all horror movies should be made by women. The Babadook certainly makes the case for this. Well-rounded female characters are hard enough to come by in film as it is, but the horror genre is especially lacking. And yet the strongest horror films feature women front and center. The list goes on and on: Alien, Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, Suspiria, Carrie, and almost anything made by Alfred Hitchock. Consider especially my personal favorite horror movie, Rosemary's Baby, where the female protagonist is integral to the success of the story. Amelia, in fact, reminds me a lot of Rosemary Woodhouse. In both films, one gets a sense that the pleas for help from the main characters--which are dismissed by the supporting characters as delusions--would be taken more seriously were the character male.

But, as much as Amelia reminded me of Rosemary, if there is a classic horror film character to compare Amelia to, it would be Wendy Torrance from The Shining. Like Shelley Duvall in that role, Essie Davis truly showcases her talent for screaming, as we see a woman incessantly hounded be the monster in her world. But unlike her scream queen predecessors, Amelia has a bit of Jack Torrance in her too--at one point, Mister Babadook merges with Amelia and she becomes as dangerous as she is helpless. This melding of monster and victim is fascinating and unusual, and the the transformation of protagonist to menace is done so seamlessly that we're never really sure where Amelia ends and the Babadook begins. This is enhanced by the filmmaking itself--the film is gorgeously shot from beginning to end, but becomes far more stylized once the Babadook begins to take over Amelia's being (starting with a super trippy and surreal dream sequence) and the film's aesthetic begins to look like that of its signature black and white pop-up book. The moments where the distinction between Amelia and monster become blurred were by far the scariest for me. In one notable moment, Samuel is speaking to his loving mother, and Davis dropped her voice into her lower register and snapped at him, cursed at him, and bullied him. It was so uncharacteristic, and such a shift in Amelia's energy that it perfectly demonstrated to us that this was more than your average horror film. There are many times where we see Mr. Babadook lurking in the corners, and these can provide jumps and gasps, but moments like the one I described above were the ones that actually gave me goosebumps.

Amelia, a wonderful blend of monster and victim.

And it is in these moments that the Babadook plays on even more specific childhood fears. Samuel tells his mother that the Babadook likes to scare his victims, and he certainly scares Amelia many times throughout the film-- using tricks like cockroaches and shadows. This is how he chooses to scare the adult. But once he merges with Amelia and begins to target his terror towards Samuel, we see him speak to more specific childhood fears. Samuel cannot be scared by bugs or by the dark--he is more affected by fears of insecurity and inadequacy. Samuel fears that his mother doesn't love him, or that she wishes she had died instead of his dad, and so these are the types of things that Mister Babadook makes Amelia say. It's a wonderful and unexpected shift to identify such complex and sophisticated fears to apply to a young boy, and speaks to the emotional maturity that so many adults forget children possess.

Children have a rich history in the genre of horror. You often see creepy children-- the evil ones whose demonic nature is heightened by coming from such an innocent source. And then there are the wise children. Since horror movies deal with the world of the irrational, children are often seen as the voice of reason--the ones who can most quickly pick up on the realities of their world. It makes sense, for example, that Amelia denies what is happening in the face of such strong evidence, but Samuel is not affected by such hesitations. Samuel actually falls into both categories. He is introduced to us as a bad seed--his obsession with the morbid and knowledge of the Babadook's workings make him seem dangerous to both himself and his mother. But, as the film goes on, we realize that Samuel is actually a scared child who is trying his best and who we should take more seriously. For one thing, his "bad seed" reputation is fabricated. Sure, Samuel's a little weird, but has been assigned an unfair label by adults who are mostly disinterested in understanding him (including his teachers). In one telling scene, Samuel is hiding out in a treehouse and his cousin Ruby (the potential good child to Samuel's misbehaved child) begins to tease him. It's an ugly scene, as Ruby spews hateful things--including saying that Samuel's father died to get away from him. Samuel, in anger, pushes Ruby out of the treehouse. This is, of course, seen as simply more bad behavior from him, while Ruby's terrible behavior never comes to light. As such, Samuel's voice of reasoning is dismissed. The audience begins to understand him as the film goes on and grows to love the kid we misunderstood at the beginning, as his mother comes to accept her son's own eccentricities.

Noah Wiseman gives an impressive debut performance as Samuel

But the Babadook succeeds best because it's not just about the horror. It serves as a poignant piece and fully utilizes the enhanced emotional state horror can bring out in us to tell its story. It's a thinly veiled (so thin that the veil might as well not exist) allegory for grief--specifically the grief that Amelia and Samuel feel over the death of Amelia's husband, Oscar, who died in a car crash. When one realizes this connection later in the film, everything we have seen before begins to make sense in new context. For example, the Babadook tells Amelia in his book, "The more you deny it, the stronger it gets," Their grief over the death of Oscar has clearly harmed her and Samuel. Neither can return to "normalcy" until they can free The Babadook and get over their own grief. It's a powerful commentary on the all-consuming nature of depression and grief, and the destructive affect it can have on individuals and their families. Considering Amelia's hesitance to tell anyone about her situation, the way her own sister shoves her away because she doesn't want to deal with her, the way that it affects her personal relationships and even her work-- the comparison is crystal clear, and will undoubtedly ring true for anyone who has ever suffered from depression. The Babadook is some sort of demonic force, yes, but he could also be seen as a manifestation of personal demons (see what I did there?) This comparison is brought home by the fact that they can never get rid of the Babadook. In the end, the monster is not killed, just contained. The Babadook will always be a part of Amelia's life, but she knows how to manage it now.

Mister Babadook himself.

These themes and the rich characters and story of the piece are sure to make The Babadook resonate with multiple audiences--including those who do not tend to like horror films. But horror fans will undoubtedly enjoy and appreciate the film even more. It's powerful, and a strong showing in a genre which is changing for the worst. But as long as Jennifer Kent continues to make films like this--and inspires other filmmakers to aspire towards The Babadook's level of quality--it shows that the horror genre may still have hope. Joining the ranks of The Shining and Rosemary's Baby, The Babadook is an instant classic which will hopefully continue to grow in acclaim and recognition.

The marquis at the SIFF Theater in Seattle, where my girlfriend saw this film. She thought it was funny at first. After watching the film, she, rightfully, thought it was terrifying.

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