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The Babadook

tn_babadookBABADOOK, BABADOOK, BABADOOK. Man, that’s all anybody talks about ever since this movie played the A, B or C Film Festival last year. At first I just ignored it, ’cause I thought it was some Howard Stern thing. But when I found out it was an Australian horror movie I knew that aligned with my interests.

It’s immediately captivating. It has a stylish look, kinetic editing and interesting faces on its two primary characters, the lonely widow Amelia (Essie Davis, who of course played Maggie in both MATRIX sequels [okay honestly I don’t remember who that character is]) and her weird little son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who’s about 7 years-old but is introduced testing powerful catapults and dart guns and talking about bashing a monster’s head in with a rock.

There’s some Sam Raimi-esque flourishes here and there, and it’s easy to picture a cutesy horror comedy where the kid goes Ash, saves Mom from a monster with home-made weapons and traps, furrows his brow and says some one-liner, charming the socks off the midnight film festival crowds and twentysomething writers for movie websights. And I would’ve been okay with that if it was done well, but I like that writer/director Jennifer Kent (you know, “Lab Lady” from BABE: PIG IN THE CITY) chose a less obvious path.

To me it’s the character study part of the movie that makes it great. Yes, there is a boogie man (person of boogie?) called The Babadook that seems to be haunting them after they read about it in a (not appropriate for all ages) pop-up book, but the actual monster part of it isn’t very scary in my opinion. For most of the movie it seems more reasonable to read as hysteria than as actual supernatural happenings. But what made it a really strong movie for me is its detailed, emotional portrait of this woman and everything she’s going through as a person. In fact, it’s everything else besides the monster that’s scary.

mp_babadookAmelia’s definitely having a hard time, but she puts on a brave face at first. Her son is clearly a weirdo, and she doesn’t know how to get him to chill the fuck out. His violence and monster talk get him ejected from class and from birthday parties. He gets in bed with her every night so she can’t sleep, she can’t even take a minute to masturbate. She stares longingly at couples, she seems haunted not just by a monster but by the clothes that were once worn by her husband, now just laying there empty, like her life. She doesn’t fit in with her sister or her sister’s friends, and has no patience for their attempts to relate to her situation. She does have an elderly neighbor and a young co-worker who try to look out for her, but she’s bad at accepting their kindness.

Thanks to her son’s tendency to un-self-consciously blurt out uncomfortable truths, we know why around the time of his birthday is a bad time of year for her emotional well being: her husband died the day Samuel was born. It’s been 7 years but she can’t forget that she traded her life partner for this little handful here who keeps tossing firecrackers inside the fucking house for crying out loud go to your room.

This is an example of why it’s valuable to have different types of people making movies: it’s the rare horror movie with a very female point of view. It’s about being alone in parenting but wanting to be strong enough to do it on your own. About knowing your kid and not accepting the bullshit that the school or relatives or friends say about him. But also about the fear of being a bad parent. It’s both understandable and questionable when she begs the doctor to prescribe the kid sedatives. And I’m sure these things are relatable to fathers, too, but they are specifically about the expectations people put on mothers and on themselves as mothers.

Because also it’s about a fear of not loving your kid enough. About the part of her that blames him for losing her husband. About the fear of flipping out and laying all her frustrations on the kid. We all can fear getting to the end of our rope, but a single mother fears it in a different way because she has different responsibilities that are put at risk.

So also it’s about her mental health. She keeps getting more stressed and less rested until she is actually, undeniably acting crazy. If your whole life has become being a mother, how must it feel to realize you’re unfit to be a mother? It’s devastating, but at that point the audience sympathy, or at least mine, transfers to the kid. Now all the sudden it’s about the horrifying situation of a parent not being themselves. He seems to know that the Babadook he keeps telling her not to let in is not some prick with claws and a stupid hat, it’s a side of her that she needs to keep at bay. When he says he doesn’t want her to go away I don’t know if that means for her usual nice person personality to go away and be replaced by the crazy bitch with the large knife, or if it means they’re gonna take her away to the hospital, like they clearly ought to. Some social service people have been coming around and you really feel for her when things look bad and she feels like a total deadbeat. But maybe it’s time to admit that she is.

There’s a cool little bit when the shit goes down and she keeps trying to pick the kid up. Every time she reaches for him he flies across the room like they’re the matching sides of magnets. It’s like a nightmare with an obvious interpretation: she’s afraid of losing him, of not being able to protect him.

It should be said, by the way, that these are two great performances here. Davis gives a really layered, evolving performance of a woman falling apart, and God only knows how the fuck they found a little weirdo like Wiseman. It’s one of those kid performances where it has to be some kind of combination of innate talent, a director who knows how to work with children, and dumb luck. He’s too young to have learned how to act like that. He just does it.

It’s funny, all the more difficult, human stuff is what works best for me in this movie. The easier, traditional horror tricks are the only part that I have some problems with. I don’t think they even follow the simple rules set up by the children’s book about hearing a knock and there’s the Babadook or whatever it is. I don’t think Kent cared about that part very much.

In the spirit of mild negativity let me bring up one insignificant nitpick that I don’t think many will agree with me on: I am not a fan of this spooky pop-up book that the story centers around. It’s done in such a modern cute-but-evil cartoon style, that would only be done in the last decade or two, post-NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. I know the pop-up book isn’t a hundreds-of-years-old type of artform, so it can’t be a wood carving or something, but I still think it would seem more mysterious and creepy if it had a more timeless look, something that could’ve existed in the mother’s childhood or earlier. A book that makes you think “jesus, what were they showing kids back then? This is creepy.” Like, I remember I had this book as a kid that had old nursery rhymes and stuff and there was a picture that was a realistic illustration of poodles walking upright wearing old timey clothes and having a tea party or something. That was not in any way meant to be scary but it was creepy as shit. That’s what this should feel like in my opinion. It shouldn’t be some cutesy intentional horror thing from the clearance rack at Hot Topic. It should seem at first like maybe it was made by some weirdo with poor judgment about what to show to kids.

That’s kind of a small detail, but it’s an example of why this was almost but not quite a home run for me. It definitely wins the fight, but not by knock out, it has to go to the judges. And other sports metaphors. Like the other critical smash horror movie of the year, IT FOLLOWS, I like the idea of the ending, but didn’t really feel it while watching it. And a great horror movie, as much as it crawls into your brain and fucks you up later, it also oughta force you to  feel it while you’re watching.

In one very important and rare way, though, THE BABADOOK does. This is a uniquely emotional horror movie. It had a little bit of that TREE OF LIFE quality of putting me into such an authentic child’s perspective that it brought up long forgotten childhood memories. That’s something special.

The story ends up at an interesting place that I could compare to TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D or even THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, so go ahead and try to decode that if you want, Alan Turing. It’s kinda brave and it makes sense on a symbolic level, but it left me thinking and interpreting symbols instead of leaving my heart beating fast. I think at the end, if it’s gonna be a horror movie, it needed to stop fucking around and have a serious visceral victory or loss to truly seal the deal. If that had happened I would’ve been babadooking it out with everybody else about this being a new horror classic. And who knows, maybe it is, but I’m not convinced yet. And that’s okay. It’s still a really good one.

Let’s not have a part 2 though on this one in my opinion.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, April 17th, 2015 at 1:25 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “The Babadook”

  1. Yeah, I thought more than once during this one that I might have liked it more if they just cut out all the horror and psychological stuff and made it a downbeat drama. That’s a rare opinion for me to have, but honestly I thought the “horror” was pretty weak. A watchable and well-made movie overall, but jeez did this get horribly over-hyped for me.

  2. Vern, I see your point about the book itself, but as I saw in another review,

    SPOILER

    the movie has two instances where it implies that the mom may be the author of the book. First at the niece’s party, one of the other mothers asks her about how she used to be a writer. The secondly there is the scene at the police station where her hands are covered in ink.

    It seems that the implication is that the book is the physical manifestation of her growing mental illness and disillusionment of motherhood.

    END SPOILERS

    I watched this last night and loved it. The film was so moody and atmospheric. And as a father of a very energetic and talkative three year old I hated myself for identifying with the mother at times.

  3. I thought this had plenty of moments of bone chilling terror, but I agree that the monster is not scary. When it crawled across the ceiling I found it laughable to be honest. Yet it is quite an icon monster in terms of design. The child performance is one for the ages, just astonishing.

  4. I’m glad the insane hype surrounding this movie didn’t completely spoil it for you. I got a 3 year old too so this one hit particularly hard. I thought the childrens book was cool, but it’s clearly something that designed to be creepy and disturbing, like the over-stylised haunted dolls in horror movies. My wife has a book of old German childrens stories (Der Struwwelpeter) and they are fucked up. There’s one where a little girl plays with matches and burns herself alive and one where a kid who sucks his thumbs gets them cut off by creepy guy with a giant pair of scissors.

    TJ: I never picked up on that. That’s an interesting theory.

    I actually really liked the ending. The movies works so well as a metaphor for mental illness and grief that a traditional ending where she defeats the monster and everything’s okay would have felt like a cheat. Mental illness doesn’t work that way, it’s something you have to learn to cope with over time. It feels more honest to me. And I’m definitely glad they didn’t go with the bummer ending where the monster leaps out and it cuts to black.

  5. I don’t have kids nor am I going to have kids. I feel like you need to want kids, have kids, or like kids to really be affected by it. Am I wrong?

  6. flyingguillotine

    April 17th, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    I really liked the ending. I thought it perfectly tied off the idea that we all have a negative side, the part of us that thinks SHUT THE FUCK UP I WANNA KILL YOU about a child we love when they’re acting up.

    But that’s not going away, because it’s a part of being human. So the healthy thing to do is to keep it in the basement, go down there every once in a while and give it a dog dish, talk a little bit, get a little reminder that this isn’t your friend — it’s still very dangerous — and then run back up the stairs and lock the door.

    Also: the kid is brilliant because he’s SUCH a complete pain in the ass we can totally understand how she would be pushed to murderous urges. It’s interesting that, at the end, via sunshine and music we come to see his behavior through a new light; he still blurts weird stuff, but she just kind of rolls with it, and he doesn’t go into screaming fits anymore because it seems like he’s picking up on the more relaxed, positive energy from his mother. She has gotten past the phase during which she subconsciously blames him for her husband’s death.

  7. BABA BOOEY! BABA BOOEY! BABA BOOEY! BABA BOOEY!

  8. Babadook dook dook, dook of Earl, dook dook, dook of Earl, dook dook…

  9. Griff, my other joke was that I hope The Babadook teams up with Howard Stern so they can promote the movie by prank calling “Baba Booey Babadook Baba Booey.”

  10. You gotta wonder what the fuck some children’s book authors were thinking, or even our parents for letting us read some of those books when we were kids. I still remember being haunted by Little Black Sambo (in hindsight a questionable racist depiction) about a skinny African boy who gets stalked by tigers, and he ends up leading them in circles around a tree until they get churned into butter then he takes the butter home to feed his family. Or something like that.

  11. Or the Beach Boys – “Ba ba ba, ba ba Badook, Ba ba ba, ba ba Badook.”

  12. Teen-age wastelands…

  13. Ah, thanks TJ. I did not pick up on that, and that would be a good explanation. I noticed also that it looked like it was cut straight from watercolor paintings, not published.

  14. Off topic, sorry, but I just want to say it’s the little details like this:

    “Error 404 – You Fucked Up. Do better next time.”

    that make this the best sight on the internet. Besides of course the excellent reviews and below the line discussions. Thanks Vern! (Back to lurking for me…)

  15. Shouldn’t the sequel be BABADOOKS where there are more than one Babadook?

  16. I’m not one to champion the use of CGI to resurrect dead Hollywood legends but I would pay good money to see Abbott and Costello Meet the Babadook. “Hey Baaaaaabbbbadook!”

  17. Fred: “Babadeux”?

    Eh, too highbrow. “Babadook 2: Electric Babadook.”

  18. Babatwook?

    Just watched this one and I thought it was pretty good. I thought the monster was creepy, but when it became obvious that it was a metaphor for her mental illness the scariness factor dropped a little bit. Which is fine; I can get behind metaphorical manifestations of real world delusion. But for me, what scares me in movies is the incomprehensible, the unreasoning. Things like Terminators and the Ring girl; monsters where there are no rules, or if there are, they’re so stacked against you that you don’t have a chance in hell. Once we realized the mom wasn’t going to kill the kid, the tension definitely drained a bit.

    But like Vern said, the scariness seemed ancillary to the main point, which was how single moms cope with stuff like this. More of a character study than a straight horror movie.

  19. I haven’t seen the movie but THANK YOU Vern for speaking the truth about the production design on that pop-up book. I loved the premise when I heard it, repeated it to my friends like a good ghost story that gave me chills when I was telling it … then I actually looked up what the book looked like – and it was just a cartoon. And I couldn’t admit it to myself until I read this review.

  20. I love you, Inspector Li.

  21. I guess maybe I’m in the minority here, but I had no problem loving both the drama AND the horror stuff. In fact, one of the things I most admire here is that it’s a classy, psychological horror movie which never apologizes for its genre trappings. There aren’t a ton of out-and-out scare scenes, but when they come they’re pretty aggressive. I love the design of the Babadook, I love the way he’s usually glimpsed but not directly seen. And I love the book as well — Vern, usually I would 100% agree with you that the book should look like something old, something that came from the real world. But I believe TJ is correct that (SPOILER!!!!) the mom actually made the book herself, made it specifically drawing on her particular kid and his unique fears. (END SPOILER) So to me, the fact that it has a homemade, intentionally scary quality makes perfect sense in the story.

    Admittedly, I saw this one before the hype got so out of hand, so I didn’t go into it with many expectations. But man, if you want more from a horror movie than this… I don’t know what to tell you. The only real complaint I have is that maybe the epilogue treads water and drags out a little longer than it probably needs. But that’s a pretty minor quibble for what I honestly think, without hyperbole, has to be one of the strongest horror movies made in recent years.

  22. At first i wasn´t much oft a fan of the ending but it turned out to be a real mean brain bloomer for me.
    It stayed with me for days after and then it just snapped! The message here is universal!
    Don´t deny your dark twisted fucked up side. Everybody got one. You have to let it out once in a while otherwise it will eat you from the inside. Keep your babadook in check. Take off from work. Ask your boss for a little vacation and then party hard with your old friend the mean lil babaDude. You will have a hell of an hangover afterwards but that´s okay as long as you don´t forget to lock that crazy babapartyanimal back in his cellar-cell. Feed him from time to time…just a snack not a feast.
    Everybody can relate to that. Okay….i think i´ve lost my original thought here. Sorry.

  23. I have a friend who has a kid like that and even though she has a complete family it is hard to deal with. As woman (albeit not a mother) I have sympathised with the lead character and her trials and liked this different horror film. But yes, it was scary for a different reason not because of that monster which was not scary.

  24. I had a hard time enjoying this film. I agree with what others say. Its better as a drama showing the mental decay of an individual and how they can descend into mental illness. Unfortunately this was sold as a horror film, which it really isn’t. It is well made but it is totally undeserving of the hype that it is getting. Also the characters in it aren’t that likeable. Felt hard to sympathise with anyone in the film. The child was a great actor but christ he was a pain in the arse. Wsa the only person in the cinema that laughed when she told him to go and eat shit.

  25. Fred, tossing you all the automatic weapons for self-defense against triads you need.

  26. I finally watched this last night, and I thought the horror and the drama worked well together. The quick cutting and manic imagery wouldn’t work well for a drama about being a single mother, so I’m all for tearing down the wall between horror and indie drama here. (Although, I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to horror, so if the film is a little less scary because of its cross-genre appeal, I’m okay with that). One thing that stuck with me at the end [spoilers] is that magic trick the kid does. I mean, he turns a coin into a freakin’ bird. Is that supposed to suggest that we’re still inside the mother’s head? I’m not entirely sure how we’re supposed to read that moments, which actually makes it suitably frightening on its own. Much of the film reminded me of The Shining, and that moment at the end seemed to echo the photograph we see at the end of Kubrick’s horror film.

  27. It’s funny that the internet went gaga over both The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night since they couldn’t be more different horror movies. Girl is arty and weird, full of film-school flourishes and pretensions, and almost non-existent in character and plot. It’s like a chain of excellent hipster video setpieces and if you’re ok with that it’s awesome. Babadook’s best assets are it’s traditional ones – strong acting and character development, and the slowly escalating plot (that unfortunately fizzles a bit in it’s climax). It’s still worth watching for the performances even though I don’t think it really affected me deeply like I was hoping it would. (It’s not particularly scary either despite what I’ve heard)

  28. Y’know, normally I have a problem with horror movies, that promise monsters, but then give us only metaphors, but this was a great one! Obviously because Jennifer Kent took the whole metaphor thing seriously and not just used it as a cheap gimmick to pretend that her b-movie has something to say, even if it’s just a hamfisted not-even-surface-scratcher like “Humans are worse than those monsters waiting in the mist*!”, like so many other horror movies do. No, her A-movie dove deep into the horrors of parenthood, grief and mental illness, going even so far, that the story would have worked without the horror gimmick. (But it’s a nice touch to make people watch such a movie, who would normaly scoff at it as lame Oscarbait.)

    I’m not sure if I will ever watch it again, because the whole thing was a bit too real for me, but it’s nice to see a genremix once in a while, that unleashes the full power of cinematic storytelling onto its audience

    *Not so subtle diss against THE MIST.

  29. Also I really like the ending, which is another proof for how serious the movie takes the whole mental illness thing. First I was a bit angry, because the ending seemed too easy and happy, but in fact it’s so on the nose, that I ever wondered why it took me a few minutes to get it.

    The Babadook is now locked up in the basement. Everything seems fine for now, but it’s still there. And it can return any time and you will be completely unprepared for it. You might be able to lock him up again, but what if he breaks out again? It’s not a question of when, but a question of if. I don’t suffer from anything that would make me go full Babadook on anybody, but as someone who suffers from depressions, the feeling of having a dark thing locked up in the basement, that’s out to get me even though I think I’m in control, is something that I fully can relate to.

  30. CJ, I agree with you on this one. Very well-done, very emotionally resonant (as a parent), kind of draining. Not a lot of fault I can find with it, but not sure I want to see it again anytime soon. In contrast, It Follows (another indie horror critic’s darling of same period) is one I could probably pop in once every year or two.

  31. Am I the only one who is super pissed off over the whole “The Babadook is now a gay icon” thing?

    It’s a symbol for the struggle with mental illness, for fuck’s sake! Don’t take it away from us, because some Tumblrgirl made a joke about a bad Netflix recommandation! We only have this and INSIDE OUT as great movies about mental illness. I’m all for gay pride, but this is something I’m not willing to give up or take easy.

  32. CJ — I’m OK with it being both. The Babadook is bigger than THE BABADOOK now. It’s a cultural icon. Everybody knows THE Babadook is a gay icon now, but they also know that in the movie THE BABADOOK he gives a great serious performance as a symbol for mental illness. It’s like Liza Minnelli. Just because she’s a classic gay icon doesn’t mean she’s not great in CABARET.

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