Monday 27 October 2014

The Babadook

Yabba Baba Dooooook

The Babadook
2014  Australia
Directed by Jennifer Kent
UK cinema release print.

Well okay then... The Babadook. 

This movie is one of those films that kinda comes out of the blue and then you’re instantly showered with a load of pre-publicity via trailers and tie ins. Arriving just in time for Halloween, it’s one of those films where you really hope the movie is going to live up to the promise of the trailer at least a little and that it’s not just another teenage stab-you-in-the-groin-and-run-away horror movie for sensation seeking, underage kiddies who have no experience or love for the history of the genre.

Well, I can say quite happily that The Babadook does not disappoint on that level, at least, although I was aware of a lot of disappointment and frustration at the end of the movie with the audience I saw it with last night. All I can say is... I’m glad it doesn’t do what you’re expecting it to do at the end folks... there’s enough of those kind of movies around already.

I’ve not seen anything directed by Jennifer Kent before but this movie was pretty well helmed. It would be unfair to say it’s a totally original film as it absolutely does use, and milk, all the standard horror clichés that you get as part and parcel of this kind of “haunt and scare” movie, to be sure. However, it would also be fair to say that these genre clichés, which are so much the bricks and mortar of movies of this ilk, are absolutely treated with both respect for the rules of the genre and Kent manages to shoot, edit and time her scares and mini revelations as the film progresses with absolute stylishness and panache, allowing the audience to both know what’s coming but to feel it too... just how she wants us to.

The film is a simple two hander about a strung-out-to-the-end-of-her-rope single mother, dealing with the death of her husband and the son he left behind in the aftermath of a horrible car crash. The lead protagonist Amelia, played assuredly by Essie Davis, was carrying her child inside her on the way to the hospital when the car crash happened. Consequently her seven year old son Samuel, played with much competence and brilliance by Noah Wiseman, never knew his father. What he does know, though, like all kids in general, is that he’s being stalked by a monster who sneaks into his room at night. When he finds a book which enables this fear, called The Babadook, for his bedtime stories, the nasty creature in the book takes on a life of its own and comes to try and claim the “handful of a kid” and drive his mother insane.

The film is well set up and it’s also a character piece in many ways, more so than most movies that succeed or fail in this genre. All of the other characters in the film serve to add texture, contrast and stress to the central characters and they seem to be there purely for that purpose... which works really well as you begin to get a feel for Amelia and Samuel and come closer to them as people while the film progresses.

The director approaches The Babadook with a lot of slow, leisurely paced camera shots and this works really well. There don’t seem to be many fast cuts in this one and there is some nice inventive stuff thrown into the mix of the already clean shot designs. One such sequence where the mother kinda falls from a height at the foreground of the camera looking down at her springs to mind, used as a metaphor as she falls onto her bed and lets sleep embrace her.

Actually, sleep is one of the things that is the language of fear in this movie. The writer/director (both Jennifer Kent) has already set up some nice, possible foreshadowing when the book shows her a glimpse of herself and what she is becoming. I won’t say too much about that because I want to keep this spoiler free but there are clear sign posts all the way through the movie that the director wants to make you very aware of. However, when it comes to the currency of sleep it becomes a battlefield because, on the one hand, the mother needs sleep. She is absolutely exhausted a lot of the time and it’s obviously throwing her judgement and behaviour off. However, she’s also painfully aware by the last third of the movie, and so is the audience, that sleep is something to be equally feared because, obviously, sleep is when The Babadook usually comes to do its work and she fears what the book has shown her. What this gives us, of course, is a typical horror character of the mother who, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, is possibly being possessed by the thing she fears most, as opposed to the possibility of an outside intruder. As the movie goes on, Kent does start to blur the lines a little more with both of her main protagonists and there are times when the audience does question the motivations and attitudes of both of them.

Thrown into the mix with this is the fact that the director can also slip effortlessly into “dream” mode at any time, as she does a few times... that is to say, she uses the surrealistic syntax of dreams when the characters are drifting in and out between sleep and wake. There’s a lot of silent film imagery drawn upon in this movie for certain of these sequences too... George Melies stuff is obviously a blatant influence on the film, and ties in nicely with Samuel’s interest in being a magician of illusion, but it’s quite clear that she’s a fan of German Expression too. Especially in terms of the design of the creature, although the majority of the specific references worn on the sleeve by the movie as such seem to harken from other countries, such as Lon Chaney’s well known turn in The Phantom Of The Opera.

At the end of the film we are caught in a place where the director really has rendered it impossible to tell whether we are in a dream, a waking nightmare, or the reality as the characters experience it. Astonishingly enough, the dream language mostly seems to be used to prime us and a lot of the really awful stuff, which I won’t reveal here, is actually really happening to the characters... so that does tend to show someone who is a master of their craft. The smoke and mirrors approach really begins to pay off.

The final denouement is all fine and ties in with the past of the characters... at least in terms of the Babadook finding a way into the inner workings of Amelia’s mind, but it was the aftermath and final end scene which I think disappointed a lot of the audience at my screening... although I found it to be a welcome breath of fresh air, myself.

My own personal false note in this came from the composer of the score, Jed Kurzel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a humdinger of a score... completely appropriate to the movie and it fails to give in to the modern horror scoring attitude of “sound design trumps melody” (although there’s a lot to be said for that kind of scoring too). There are some very strong melodic passages in here but this is where my specific problem lies. Anybody remember David Lynch’s Dune? It had a score by Toto which was “allegedly” a rip off of the four note theme composed by Ronald Stein for Roger Corman’s pseudo Poe picture (it’s actually based on an H. P. Lovecraft story) Haunted Palace. Anyone who listens to the scores will certainly question the necessity of writing “allegedly” in that last sentence, but I don’t want to get myself into trouble. The score was quite notorious at the time and for decades to come with various soundtrack afficionados wondering how Toto got away with it. Well, there’s a prominent four note them in The Babadook which, as far as I could tell, is exactly the same four note theme again. Now to be fair to the composer, who did a wonderful job on this movie, the arrangement is quite strikingly different and that just leads me into the argument about the thin line between arrangement and composition in scoring... which is somewhere I frankly don’t want to be. I’ll leave that argument for the John Barry and Monty Norman fans to have again, thank you very much. But I was surprised to hear such a notoriously famous melody being picked up again for a movie. Not unwelcome just... well... surprising.

All in all, though, I found The Babadook to be a really interesting horror movie with, perhaps a little less punch in some of the scares but very much a film with a certain depth to the characters which helps the story and attitudes explored through this one a great deal. Definitely a good watch if you take your Halloween celebrations seriously and something I could recommend for a dazzling variety of reasons... some of which I touch upon above. The Babadook is playing at a cinema near you now if you’re in the UK so, if you’re a fan of the supernatural horror movie in general, this one’s definitely worth some of your time.

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