Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

The horror genre has gone very stale of late. On one hand, there are violent slasher flicks that offer nothing interesting in terms of substance other than gory visuals. And then there are those done-to-death plots of haunted houses, demonic possessions, unhappy spirits, exorcisms, and of course, the very common, oft-used plot device of little children seeing apparitions, but their parents denying their claim until the very end. Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent offers an interesting spin on that last mentioned premise in her debut flick, "The Babadook" (2014). Despite borrowing from the age-old device, she steers clear of most other cliches associated with the plot and introduces a fresh, compelling psychological twist to the proceedings.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother still coping with the traumatic loss of her husband who was killed whilst driving her to the hospital to have her only son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia loves her son, but the incident has clearly had a huge impact on her psyche as a person and hence is affecting her role as a parent. 

Under such circumstances, in Samuel's bedtime stories collection, out of nowhere, appears a pop-up book of the menacing "Mister Babadook" a creepy looking hat-clad monster in black. The book has certain ominous messages, and appears to be genuinely scary and inappropriate for kids. Very soon, Samuel, who is already obsessed with violence and killing monsters, begins to see the Babadook all around him and rigs up weapons to kill the monster and protect his mum!

Things start to spiral out of control, when Samuel's behaviour gets increasingly aggressive and delusional. Very soon, it all begins to have an effect on Amelia, as paranoia and fear grip her. Following some strange occurrences, she begins to feel the presence of a sinister being around her, and is convinced that they are being stalked.

Unlike other films of the genre that disregard the characters, Kent's film serves as an intimate character study of Amelia, a grief-stricken single mother dealing with her loss and struggling to raise a problem child. Despite making the claims, she clearly hasn't gotten over the loss of her husband. She continues to have dreams of falling and recalls the accident in a half-broken sleep. She longs for a companion. While Amelia loves Samuel and does what she can to raise him all by herself, she can never erase the fact that Samuel was born the day her husband died. Despite a great concern for Samuel, there are moments of unmistakable rejection for the boy.

A thankless elderly care job, and the pressures of raising her son take a visible toll on her, deriving her of sleep, making her all haggard with fatigue. She mostly lacks any social life, but for a friendly male co-worker and her sister Claire. With a dreary life of this sort, it is not surprising that there are pent up emotions owing to loneliness and restrained freedom, a frustration built over the years, being released in the form of hostility and irritation in response to Samuel's annoying behaviour. With the entry of the Babadook, this behaviour seems to be amplified with Amelia's demeanour getting progressively volatile, and bordering on violent psychosis.

Toward the latter half of the film, the madness reaches extreme proportions in some hair-raising moments. Certain jaw-dropping sequences bring to mind the David Lynch brand of psychological thrillers with hallucinating central characters having a questionable mental state, who are unable to distinguish between reality and imagination. The cheap jump-scare tactics are kept at bay, relying instead on intense, shocking sequences that implore you to sit up and pay attention. Adding to it is an atmosphere of dread that literally gets under your skin, with some nightmarish imagery, recurring dialog and a constant sensation of an invisible presence lurking around the corner.

Another fresh touch is how the Babadook isn't pigeonholed with a label of a supernatural entity, which is usually the case. So indeed, it isn't spelled out if it's a ghost, an evil spirit, a demon, a psychopath, or even a figment of imagination. All that is apparent is that it's an antagonistic presence of some sort. In fact the Babadook is seen only in the shadows or split-second illusory images, the kind that make one think that the mind is playing tricks and there's really nothing there!

There are hints to suggest that the Babadook is in fact a dark, malevolent manifestation of the negative energy that stems from a stagnation that comes from being stuck in time; the inability to move on from a tragedy. Could it be a symbol of grief, an unpleasant memory, a can of worms that needs to be fed and maintained with more bowls of worms for it can never be totally erased from the heart and mind? And therefore, thanks to the rich subtext surrounding the titular entity, there is no room for convulsive displays of possession, no religious rituals to rid ghosts, or any of that stuff which has become so boring lately.

Instead, what we have is some solid psychological horror, an ode of sorts to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980), that focuses on insanity gradually engulfing a parent, who thereby turns into a predator from a protector. One particular scene in which a mentally deteriorated Amelia mocks and imitates a whining Samuel, directly references a similar sequence in the Kubrick film when Jack Nicholson's character completely loses his marbles and derides Shelley Duvall's pleas of taking their son to the doctor.

It was essential to have a solid performer to pull off the Jack Nicholson kind of over the top dementia and Essie Davis rivals that act with a fantastic performance. She displays a wide range of emotions, from a sobbing, vulnerable mother to a hysterical and dangerous, psychotic maniac. Noah Wiseman appears to annoy quite a bit for a while, but it only goes to show how effective the little actor is in his display of an irritating kid who manages to irk the hell out of his mother.

Don't let the plot synopses online, the title or the poster design fool you like it did me. This is not the kind of run-of-the-mill bogeyman horror cum unintentional comedy that you might think it to be. It's a solid work of modern psychological horror that will surprise you. Check it out now!

Score: 8/10

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