November 28, 2014
Essie Davis as Amelia
Noah Wiseman as Samuel
Tim Purcell as The Babadook
Essie Davis, who you’ll remember from the second and third The Matrix films, and hopefully for the little-known gem Isolation (do yourself a favor and check out this terrifying film asap), is Amelia, trudging through life and caring for her 6-year old son, Samuel. It’s been a rough ride since Samuel was born. Amelia’s husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital, the day that Amelia went into labor and the day little Sam came into this world. So it’s been almost seven years of agony, raising a very eccentric and tactless child all by herself. And Amelia is frazzled, resentful and just plain tired.
Although she’s had her fill of Sam’s obsessive (but clearly not irrational) fears with monsters in his room, she still reads him scary stories (the first one we see in the film is “The Three Little Pigs”) and then there’s the big red random book on Sam’s bookshelf – with no author, no publisher and no credentials on the cover or inside the jacket – just a startling black figure and the title, “Mister Babadook”.
The first lines in this heavy and brilliantly-conceived pop-up book (there’s already a Kickstarter campaign in the works for this tome to actually be produced – put me on the list!) are, “If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a look. You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
One of the joys of this film lies in the fact that the characters and in turn, the audience, never truly find out the origins of this book. And while there are clues throughout about what “The Babadook” may really be, it’s never completely confirmed during the film’s 93 minute running time. It’s not meant to. Draw your own conclusions.
Based on the trailer I saw only a couple of weeks ago, I had extremely high hopes about this one. A day or so ago, I insisted to my editor that I wanted to review this and he came through immediately. So off I went to take in the picture.
While I really enjoyed it, for many reasons I’ll get into shortly, the film didn’t live up to the picture of an absolute terror-ride painted by the trailer.
The sets are reminiscent of Beetlejuice, and while never really over the top or goofy, it definitely has a playful Tim Burton quality. In particular, the staircase and banister are something straight from Otho’s designs for the Deetz household.
But the picture rightfully belongs to the performers. Essie Davis and her on-screen son, Noah Wiseman are a powerful onscreen duo. Davis channels a little Rosemary’s Baby’s Mia Farrow, both in her painful physical decline (her stress and exhaustion practically ooze from the screen) as well as her mental and emotional free-fall when things start to churn. There’s the requisite visit from the social services, once Samuel is removed from school, and both Davis and Wiseman shine in these scenes. Davis’s hair is mussed and she’s in a daze, the house looks like crap and Samuel is all wishy-washy and coming down from the sedatives which Amelia begged the doctor to prescribe. Samuel bluntly proclaims in a brilliant comic bit, to the social workers, “I’m sleepy from all the drugs mom gave me.” Wiseman as Samuel (in his first film) is an unprecedented discovery. He’s kooky and strong, even in light of his mother’s inability to recover from her loss, and her obvious mounting irritation with his shenanigans. But he’s a good kid, just misunderstood (which Amelia is all too quick to shun others for, but then can’t herself get past Samuel’s overbearing neediness). Despite the times where they are at odds (Amelia can’t even find private time to enjoy her favorite electrical device – wink, wink), there is an ever-present and deep love and an absolute need for one another. We believe these two would go to the ends of the earth to protect the other, and when Amelia begins to change, it hurts us almost as much as it hurts Samuel. The relationship on display in the film is the top reason to watch The Babadook.
The picture is not as ripe with spectacular “boo” moments (I was expecting to be crawling out of my seat), but the bleak atmosphere and rich-with-dread proceedings (no doubt due in large part to the set designers – the gray and black colors of the home are downright depressing, and not at all wasted when hiding the whereabouts of our Babadook friend), keep your attention, mostly with the stomach-churning promise of very bad things to come.
Tim Purcell as The Babadook is caught only in glimpses, but every one of them is powerful. A towering presence, The Babadook has echoes of Freddy Krueger, the cursed mother of Ju-Onand The Grudge and even a little of the characters from the silent German classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Basically, all of these proven nightmares which have come before are thrown together in a blender and poured out in a rich, terrifying and brand new horror personality.
Some of the monster’s movement (later re-used for Amelia’s tranformation) is straight out of another classic German expressionistic film, Nosferatu, as The Babadook floats in from a dark corner of the family kitchen. It’s familiar, but damn if it isn’t completely effective and goose-bump inducing. I’ll borrow a phrase from Bart Simpson (it can never be over-used) – “icky-pants”.
There are plenty of things in the end (a little epilogue no doubt inspired by Shaun of the Dead) which again, leaves you wondering what the book was all about, and what (or whom?) placed it on little Sam’s bookshelf, and for what reason. My other half and I have discussed some ideas, but I’d be curious to know what writer/director Jennifer Kent (kudos to you, m’lady, on a fantastic picture) had in mind while putting this story to paper (it was based on a short tale she wrote, entitled “The Monster”), and later to celluloid. I sometimes find it irksome to not have a totally clear picture of what we’re meant to take away, but The Babadook is a fine example of leaving the audience hanging, and letting said audience happily depart the theatre to later debate on the events just experienced.
The Babadook isn’t as memorable in the scare category as I’d hoped, but the foul feelings created as the story marches on, are unmatchable. But again, it’s the performances from Davis and Wiseman and the bond they forge as on-screen distant mother and outcast son that prove to be the real stars here.
The Babadook opens in the US on November 28th. It’s well worth your time and hard-earned cash to make a bee-line to your local cinema.