By Marc S. Sanders
The Australian psychological horror film, The Babadook is a very unsettling piece, and I hate my colleague, Miguel E Rodriguez for subjecting me to a viewing. It’s so unnerving simply because it is so good.
Jennifer Kent writes and directs an eerie film about a troubled mother and her young son (Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman) named Amelia and Samuel Vanek. Samuel’s father passed away in an accident while taking Amelia to the hospital when she was in labor. Seven years later, Amelia endures much sorrow and loneliness while Samuel has social issues in school and resorts to crafting barbaric weapons out of wood. I just played with action figures. This kid puts sharp knives on a sling. Other mothers and children keep their distance from them. Samuel’s school is concerned of his presence with other first graders, and Amelia opts to not even celebrate the boy’s birthday on the actual day, also known as her husband’s date of death.
One evening, Samuel pulls a book known as “Mister Babadook” off the shelf for bedtime reading. Opening the book is their first and most regrettable mistake. Haunting images of a dark shadow are shown in “pop up book” form with promises of death and so on in a cute, yet sinister, Dr. Seuss like rhyme. This is the evil “Cat In The Hat.”
Like most creepy horror films, there’s pounding on doors and floors, open doorways to find nothing there, disturbing phone calls, shadows, surprising sound editing and so on. That’s nothing new. What makes Kent’s debut film so special though are the performances from Davis and Wiseman.
As I watched the film with Miguel, I told him after about a third of the way through that I hate that annoying little kid. I think that’s the point though. Noah Wiseman plays his part with great hyperactivity who can never be satisfied or calmed with any variation of attention. Essie Davis plays Amelia as strung out and exhausted. You can’t help but feel for her inescapable circumstance of being trapped in a home with no other family and no friends who seem willing to help, much less tolerate her crazed son.
Later, long after the disturbing children’s book is read, Jennifer Kent’s script turns on a different perspective. It’s not so much that the character’s have changed. More so, the aftermath of reading “Mister Babadook” has altered the mother and son’s behaviors. What caught me by surprise was that my own perspective gradually changed on the two players.
You will need to watch the film to truly uncover the mystery of the book’s power. However, it’s a very frightening exploration. Kent is very good with the sensory overload; which really is a necessary tool in horror, particularly in what you hear and what you see. Kent mixes up what sense is alarmed first though, with each passing sequence. It makes it hard to relax as a viewer, while it’s also hard for the mother and son to sleep at night. That’s what keeps the hairs on your body standing up and believe me, mine were standing at full attention.
Kent covers much psychologically. Insomnia, depression, aggression, night terrors and trauma are all given attention as they manifest into this disturbing unrecognizable character know as The Babadook.
I also observed an interesting aspect in use of color. Namely that Amelia is dressed primarily in faded pink and yellow while Samuel is adorned in dark grey or charcoal like the two story home they live in. The contrast in colors left me guessing who was the real source of fright in this film because at times the contrast seems to flip. I risk sounding vague here, but I’d prefer not to spoil what’s presented.
Again, The Babadook left me feeling shaken like the best of Stephen King’s adapted films including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and especially the latter half of Brian DePalma’s Carrie. I’ll even go on record and say this film is better or more effective than those two films. It’s sharper and more mysterious.
I’m not sure I was entertained with The Babadook because I was always feeling disturbed and unsettled. Good horror films do that to me. Forgive me. I can’t help that.
On the other hand, Miguel was quite entertained at me cursing him out and loudly expressing my seething hatred towards him as I watched. What can I say? Mig had it coming for introducing me to The Babadook.