Saturday, October 10, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: The Babadook

The Babadook is an often harrowing experience of a single mother raising an emotionally fragile, potentially dangerous son, specifically in the weeks leading up to his birthday. There's also the title character, otherwise known as Mr. Babadook, who writes horrific children's books and sneaks them onto the shelf. Specifically, the shelf of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), much to the consternation of his mother Amelia (Essie Davis). Maybe consternation isn't the right word, especially when the line "whether it's in a word, or whether it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook" turns out to be very accurate. Writer / Director Jennifer Kent crafts The Babadook into a film teetering on hysteria from the word go, and ratchets up the tension. Partly due to the titular menace, but also from the already precarious mental state of Amelia, who can barely coexist with her son.

 It's actually well into the movie before The Babadook becomes any sort of tangible threat, but in the meantime there's plenty of tension to go around. Amelia's husband died while trying to drive her to the hospital, and she's had her hands full with Samuel, who bears the signs of a child who grew up in a household that never moved past "grieving." He's convinced monsters are in the house and builds home made weapons to fight them. When he takes a particularly nasty crossbow to school, Amelia is called in from her job at a nursing home, and in the ensuing argument with the staff, she removes her son from classes altogether. Amelia is just barely functional - she hasn't slept in months thanks to Samuel's night terrors, her coworkers feel she's not keeping up with her duties, and her sister Claire (Hailey McElhinney) refuses to come over to her townhouse. It's too "depressing," and she's far more concerned with keeping Samuel away from her daughter. He's prone to violent outbursts and fits of screaming, and there's something unseemly about his attachment to Amelia. (Note early in the film when he leans in to hug her and she abruptly pushes him away and yells "stop!" What exactly did he do?)

 One night, she lets him pick the book that will lead up to their abbreviate sleep schedule - one that will be inevitably be interrupted when he panics about the "monster" - and Samuel finds an oversized red volume with the title Mister Babadook on the cover. It promises a mischievous, albeit creepy, looking friend, but as Amelia turns the pages, the tone shifts to sinister. There's a promise that "once you see what's underneath, you'll wish that you were dead," and her son is understandably terrified. Now his "monster" has a name, and with homemade weapons and a love of magic, Samuel feels he's the only person who can keep the Babadook from killing his mother. Amelia tears the book up and throws it away, but not long after, it mysteriously reappears...

 If it were merely a film about the issues that Amelia and Samuel face in day to day life, The Babadook would be a film fraught with tension, but the added supernatural element pushes them past the breaking point and into truly frightening territory. Kent wisely avoids jump scares, and instead elevates the uneasy tone slowly but surely. We know something is wrong with both of our protagonists, but it's hard to tell which one is worse off. The world has essentially shut them out - or, one could argue, Amelia has alienated everyone - so when the Babadook enters the picture, there's no one and no thing to help them cope.

 Kent's masterstroke in The Babadook is to switch our loyalty in characters halfway through the film. Initially, our sympathies lie with Amelia, a beleaguered mother with the child from hell. That's something we've all seen, and something does seem to be very, very wrong with Samuel. He's violent, he's anxious, and socially maladjusted. But after he suffers an episode in Amelia's car that leaves him temporarily catatonic, Amelia begs a doctor to prescribe him a sedative for both of their sakes. He reluctantly agrees, and the first night that they both have a good night's sleep is where the swap happens. Having destroyed Mister Babadook, Amelia is alarmed to find it at her front door, with new pages included. We realize that his (its?) focus has changed - The Babadook doesn't want Samuel to "Let Me In," it wants Amelia, and provides a few graphically violent pop-ups of what's going to happen when it does. The second half of the film shifts Samuel to the position of doped up innocent as Amelia grows increasingly indifferent towards his welfare.

 Interestingly, she remains our focal point character - the film never shifts to Samuel's perspective. We instead follow Amelia as she encounters The Babadook overnight and has a series of hallucinations: first at the police station, and then late at night watching television. A series of Melies films from the early days of cinema are transformed to include the Babadook, who resembles Lon Chaney in London After Midnight more than a little bit. She sees cockroaches, first in a hole behind the refrigerator, and then inside of her car, both at disastrously inopportune times. The second, in fact, is a sly mirroring of the incident that set off her relationship to Samuel, although it's possible to not notice it once the film shifts over to "supernatural menace." The Babadook also takes on a more conventional film for horror movies, one that I won't spoil, but that promises Amelia can be normal again. At a cost, of course.

 Eventually Samuel and Amelia come to assert some control over the situation in a tense climax that I'm not going to discuss at all - that's for you to discover, although the coda of the film might come as surprising to some. Kent proposes that some things can't just be wished away, and that instead a balance must be struck between the light and the dark, however tenuous. However, there is an alternate way to read the film, if you choose to take some small pieces of information as meaning more than they seem to. We're above to dive into mild SPOILER territory here, so skip the next paragraph if you'd rather not know anything about The Babadook.

 Earlier in the film, Amelia mentions to Claire's friends that she used to be a writer, but hasn't written anything since her husband died. She has a bad habit of losing track of time due to insomnia, and to see things that aren't there, particularly later in the film. It's true Samuel finds Mister Babadook on his shelf, but who put it there? Near the very end of the film, there's a small moment between Amelia, Samuel, and the Civil Services agents that suggests what we're seeing isn't an exception, but instead the norm. Amelia tells them she always has trouble keeping things together around Samuel's birthday, and he then tells them that this year will be the first time he's ever had a party. If you choose to, particularly based on the "fixed" copy of the book, one could read The Babadook as being a traumatic episode that Amelia is dealing with, perhaps annually. If you opt to read the monster as "not real," or that she wrote the book as a means of cathartic release, then the ending in the basement is also possibly in her mind. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Babadook is a real external force exacerbating her already fractured maternal bond with Samuel.

 (Here endeth speculatory SPOILAGE)

 The Babadook is a genuinely creepy movie, one that ought to be on the radar of horror fans tired of endless remakes. It's the second movie I've seen from the same region (The Babadook from Australia and Housebound from New Zealand) that was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale landscape of zombies and kid-friendly monsters. There is such a thing as a renaissance in horror, but you need to be okay with the fact that much of it flies under the radar. You won't get the chance to see it on a big screen most of the time (It Follows being a notable exception), but there's some very good new horror out there, if you're willing to dig a bit. Jennifer Kent's debut put her on my radar, and I look forward to seeing what she makes next.

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