Growing up back when I did, I vividly recall being told the old tales of the brothers Grimm; many an evening did I sit tucked in while my grandmother would regale me with the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, or Snow White, among others. Although these little vignettes almost always featured a child as the protagonist (the better for us to relate to, my dear), the situations they found themselves in were far more often than not quite terrifying; the prospect of being caught in the home of angry bears, being eaten by a wolf, or eating a poisoned apple were real fears we could absorb, and presented to us in a context that we could easily understand. Thus the true purpose of these stories; cautionary tales to teach us kids something without us even realizing that we were being taught. Early on then, by giving us something that we could fear, these stories taught us important life lessons; after all, you tend to remember what scares you. As adults, most of us tend to think that we’ve pretty much got this frightening education down pat; we don’t futz around in other people’s houses when they’re not home, put our trust in shady strangers, or eat things some creepy old bat offers us out of her nasty old bag…but does this mean there aren’t lessons we can still be taught?
The Babadook, the freshman feature of writer/director Jennifer Kent, is a remarkable film that carries a similar metaphorical message to those old childhood staples while also wrapping it sincerely and completely in the folds of a very entertaining horror movie.
Amelia is a single mother desperately struggling with the loss of her husband seven years ago; he was tragically (and horrifically) killed on the night of her son Samuel’s birth in an accident on the way to the hospital. Since then, she’s raised the young boy on her own, albeit with some not-so-subtle yet visibly hard-fought resentment. Their life has become a colorless, cold void of sadness and (despite their being together) loneliness.
Samuel, a bright and imaginative child, has nonetheless developed some severe socialization problems, no doubt subconsciously picking up on the detached and sorrowful condition of his mother, while Amelia, plauged by nightmares and regrets, simply goes through the motions of motherhood, unwilling (and perhaps, unable) to allow herself to become close to the son she obviously loves. Perhaps in an effort to show his love for his mother, Samuel often imagines situations where he must “protect” her from the monsters and evils of his imagination, constructing quite clever (and dangerous) homemade weapons to this end, including a kind of backpack catapult and a dart-firing crossbow. Amelia discourages such things, preferring to indulge his fantasies with story readings…until the night a mysterious pop-up book called “Mister Babadook” is brought from the shelf by the child. Reading the short tale to the boy, it’s quickly apparent that the subject matter of a spectral thing that will come to you and remain forever inescapable is not suitable material for the impressionable youngster; it becomes a recurring theme in his fantasies, causing him to become more hysterical and frightened to the point of disrupting both his social encounters and even physical well-being. These events, causing lack of sleep and further fraying her already tenuous mental state, result in Amelia herself beginning to feel the effects of the story, experiencing horrific sounds and visions of her own. As the terror begins to mount within their home and the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred, the questions of who is sane and what is real must be answered if either mother or child is to survive the Babadook…and each other.
The film is a beautiful example of how a good story combines with visionary direction and marvelous acting to provide a frightening, memorable tale that holds a mirror up to a relatable, very real situation. The grim specter of unfathomable grief and the unwillingness to let go of it is an obvious parable with the Babadook, while Kent’s story never confirms that this is the case. Is the Babadook a real thing? A demon of sorrow, perhaps? A construct of a fractured mind of a grieving mother? Perhaps a combination of that and a child’s imagination? Or all of the above? Kent keeps you guessing without ever boring you, and with her setups, effectively bleak production design, and harrowing use of sound, scares the hell out of you as well. The acting of the two principals, Essie Davis as Amelia and young Noah Wiseman as Samuel, are tour-de-force performances that dismiss all notions of disbelief early on; the chemistry between the two is apparent, while at the same time the distance you feel between the characters is discomforting. You find yourself sympathizing with them easily, while also becoming angry with them, fearing for them, and being afraid of them as well; such emotional manipulation is the best testament to the script, direction, and performances that I can offer. The special effects, while childlike, were intended to be so. Hardcore gorehounds and those expecting some KNB-level version of some horrific monster will be disappointed, but those that can become engrossed in the story will find what they see to be nightmarish and hard to get out of their heads when the lights go out. The ending was confusing to some I’ve talked to, but if you allow yourself to become absorbed in the tale, I think you’ll find what is presented is fairly obvious: some things can never be escaped, only accepted.
I loved this film, folks. Like any horror movie, there will be those that don’t; that’s what makes it all go ’round. If you’re expecting a pure, standard blood ‘n’ guts scare fest, you won’t find it here. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a tale you can be drawn into, taken on a chilling ride with believably real characters facing real-life issues draped in the dark and sinister trappings of childhood nightmare, you’re gonna have a tough time finding one done better than this.
Just tell me when I can pre-order the Blu-ray.
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