THE BABADOOK (5/22/2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
My Rating: 10/10
PLOT: A widowed mother and her precocious but troubled young son experience some strange goings-on at home after reading a disturbing pop-up book about a malevolent spirit called The Babadook.
All due respect to the classics of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but some of the greatest, most efficient, most effective, and scariest horror movies have been released in the 21st century. “Paranormal Activity”, “The Descent”, “Hereditary”, “A Quiet Place”, “The Cell”, “It”, and many, many others, including, of course, “The Babadook.”
However, “The Babadook” stands out because, not only does it achieve its scares with an ingenious less-is-more approach, but it’s actually ABOUT something. Only the best horror films can say that. And it’s not about some corny love-conquers-all theme. It’s very specifically about people who have experienced a great personal loss, what that loss does to those people, and how a healing process can hopefully begin.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a struggling single mother who was widowed on the day her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born. Samuel is now six. He loves his mother, but he does a LOT of acting out…the kind of acting out that earns judgmental stares from other parents. He builds crude but working weapons, including a catapult he can wear on his back. (Assuming he lives to see college, this kid’s going to be an engineer.)
Amelia appears to be hovering on the edge of a breakdown. She loves Samuel, but she’s painfully aware that his behavior, and her inability to control it, is causing problems at school and with other family and friends.
One night, he chooses a book to read as a bedtime story. Amelia doesn’t recognize the book – where did it come from? It’s a pop-up book called “The Babadook.” (For the record, the last syllable of “babadook” rhymes with “book.”) In the annals of film history, few books are creepier and more disturbing than this freaking book. I want one.
After reading the book, the mother starts hearing noises in the house. Sam believes The Babadook is real. He has nightmares. Amelia tears the book to pieces and throws it in the garbage outside. The next morning, there’s a knock at the door…and the book is sitting on her doorstep. The pages have been re-assembled and pasted together…except now there are new passages at the end that include some troubling visuals of her, her son, and their dog.
Even without the subtext I mentioned earlier, this is some seriously scary shit. If the movie had been stripped of all its intelligence and insight, this would still be a horror classic.
The performance by Essie Davis as Amelia is as horrifying and memorable as Jack Nicholson’s in “The Shining.” She’s that good. She convincingly portrays a woman slowly descending into madness, faced with making impossible decisions while trying to shut away the crippling grief she still feels over the death of her husband. In her mind, the best way to move on with her life is to pack all of her husband’s belongings, pictures, and clothes into the basement and keep it locked up. One interesting clue to her true mindset is that Samuel is not allowed to celebrate his birthday on his actual birthday, since his father died that same day.
Things get worse. Amelia finds shards of glass in her porridge. She discovers a hole behind her fridge with…things coming out of it. Samuel becomes so terrified that he has a fit. Amelia starts to see quick glimpses of what may or may not be the Babadook itself. After one particularly horrific encounter, Samuel becomes afraid of his mother. She’s changing…
It all comes together in a final sequence that includes some of the most terrifying scenes I’ve seen since “The Exorcist.” (Fair warning: it’s not graphic, but some violence is perpetrated on a four-legged animal.)
What elevates “The Babadook” into the stratosphere is the aforementioned underlying message of the story. It provides a glimmer of hope for anyone who has suffered the kind of loss Amelia has suffered. It reminds me of that famous poem by Stephen Crane, “In the Desert.”
In the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
At this point, everything else I want to say about “The Babadook” would involve giving too much away about the climax. I am just amazed at how well this movie combines genuinely frightening material with an insightful look into correcting destructive human behavior, and not just in some general way, but very, very specifically.
It’s a modern masterpiece.