Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Film Review: The Babadook (2014)

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a nurse trying her best to juggle work and raising her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Their relationship has always been strained, largely because Amelia's husband died while driving her to the hospital so that Samuel could be born, but also because Samuel has a number of behavioural problems which repeatedly get him in trouble at school. One day, Samuel brings Amelia a book for her to read to him. It's a book she has never seen before, and it contains a nursery rhyme about a creature called The Babadook, who takes the form of an impossibly tall man in a black coat, top hat, and who comes complete with distressingly long fingernails. As they read, the story becomes more and more violent, ultimately ending with the monster menacing a young boy who looks suspiciously similar to Samuel. Thus begins the first of many sleepless nights for Amelia, as her house and its occupants are menaced by a being they can't see, who communicates solely through saying its own name in a raspy, bloodcurdling moan.

While the haunted house elements of The Babadook call to mind Poltergeist or The Orphanage, the most unnerving aspects have the same nameless dread of Roman Polanski's best work. The second half of the film, which takes place almost entirely within the confines of the house, is reminiscent of the claustrophobia and paranoia Polanski conjured up in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, as is the way that the film focuses on the mental deterioration of one woman when faced with terrifying and inexplicable external forces. Writer-director Jennifer Kent does a fantastic job of allowing the terror to build slowly as the scope of the film contracts. As their exposure to the outside world becomes more and more limited, the focus shifts to the two characters we can see and the one we can't, which make the film a suffocating experience.

Like The Exorcist, part of what makes The Babadook so affecting is the way in which it splits the difference between being a horror film and a family drama. Many of the techniques that Kent employs - brief glimpses of the Babadook menacing Amelia at night, terrifying things that only one character can see, manipulation of images on television - are staples of the horror genre, and they are used very effectively to create an atmosphere of creeping unease. What lingers, though, is the dynamic between mother and son as they wrestle with grief over their shared loss, and how that informs their experience.

Much of the opening stretch of the film, up to and including the discovery of The Babadook's book, consists of Amelia struggled with the very realistic problems of raising a child whose energy cannot be contained, and which tends to manifest itself in destructive acts. That relationship is the heart of the film, not merely because the emotional stakes rest on whether or not this family will survive or be irrevocably harmed by what they go through, but because it informs the conflict with The Babadook. When the creatures starts to mess with things in the house by dropping glass shards into food or scratching out pictures of the late patriarch, Amelia immediately assumes that it must be Samuel acting out. When it begins to exert control over Amelia's behaviour, something which it is able to do more and more as she sleeps less and less, it takes the worst things Amelia thinks about her son and has her say them. It's a deeply human relationship that is put under extraordinary pressure, but that doesn't make it any less real.

The Babadook itself doesn't appear very often - a wise choice considering that it's a creature which sounds a lot scarier than it looks - so much of the terror comes from the actors reacting to each other and the weird changes occurring in their environment. Noah Wiseman occasionally struggles to be convincingly bratty during the first act, but becomes much more natural as the film becomes more unnatural and he has to register a profound fear of the unknown. Wiseman clearly finds it easier to imagine a monster than to act like one, which probably reflects very well on him as a person, but does make some of the scenes focused on Samuel's problems feel awkward and out of step with the rest of the film.

Fortunately, Wiseman is paired with an actress giving such a marvelous performance that he can't help but be buoyed by her. Essie Davis gives an astounding and transformative performance which sees her turn from a stressed but hardworking single mother into a deeply paranoid figure who is desperately unsure of her own sanity. Since part of the Babadook's curse involves influencing the behaviour of its victims, Davis often has to switch between a loving mother at the end of her rope to a prototypical evil stepmother type, something she does without losing the essence of her character. The film is so effective as a drama because you are forced to root for and against the same woman depending largely on how she conducts herself in a given moment. She is both villain and victim, constantly at war with her desire to save her son and the way she is being forced to act. It makes the last act, in which The Babadook makes its presence more clearly felt, riveting.

Horror's a very subjective thing, and if ghost stories don't really do much for you, The Babadook might not terrify you the way that it did me. But even if you were never scared of things that go bump in the night - in which case you are probably some sort of monster anyway - The Babadook is still one of the best horror films in years because it grounds so much of its scares in human emotions and in a relationship that feels uncomfortably real. It's a deeply unsettling and brilliantly constructed examination of grief and loss which comes hidden beneath the imposing shadow of a monster from the deepest recesses of childhood.

Grade: A-