Monday, 22 December 2014

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

Today’s film almost seems like the ultimate underdog story: A filmmaking debut from an Australian director/writer partially funded by Kickstarter and given a wide release in both Australia and the U.S. to massive critical hype. This is the kind of production that gives me serious pride in my country and what its creative minds can accomplish, as well as some faith in my own creative ambitions knowing that others have paved the way. However, much like films, a great story only means as much as what results from it. As such, it’s time to engage in some more horror for the holidays: This is The Babadook.

The plot: Amelia (played by Essie Davis) finds a storybook about the Babadook to read to her son Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman), but he soon believes that the Babadook is real and is haunting them. As Samuel grows more erratic in trying to kill the Babadook, Amelia begins to notice a strange presence in their house as well and begins to crack.

This movie was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival and it very much looks like porn for cinephiles: Dense with visual language where every shot feels like they were researched to within an inch of their lives in order to give the precise effect the director intends. Not only does this look nice, but a lot of care and effort was put into the atmosphere and overall scare factor of the film as well. A great example of this would have to be the titular Babadook: Anytime we hear or see it, it’s never obnoxiously loud or aiming for jump scares; rather, we get low but definitely menacing sounds coming from it that don’t startle but rather creep under the skin, along with a rather amazing effect in that the Babadook will sometimes move in faster motions but somehow don’t notice induce that jump-scare effect while still being unsettling.

Once we get into the writing, however, we see exactly what aspect got more of the attention. Not to say that the writing is bad per se, but rather you can definitely tell that this film puts a lot more emphasis on how it looks and feels rather than how it reads and for the most part it works. One theme in particular that stuck out, a clear example of the film’s academic approach at work, is Amelia’s sexual frustration. With one of the key pre-film plot points is a car accident that killed Amelia’s husband, along with a few character moments that highlight said frustrations, it adds some surprising layers to events in the third act that warrant some reading into. The director, Jennifer Kent, apparently did some understudying with indie king of depression Lars Von Trier and you can see traces of that in this film with both its look and some of its writing aspects.

Throughout the film, we are given small hints that The Babadook might just be a figment of one or both of the main characters’ imaginations and said hints are delivered with a refreshing amount of subtlety that complements the story rather well. As the pieces begin to fall into place and Amelia becomes more and more deranged as the film goes on, the tension reaches every breaking point as you’re still not 100% sure whether the Babadook is real or it is just the actions of an insane Amelia. *SPOILERS* However, once we get to the ending, it’s made painfully aware that the film did too good a job at setting up Amelia as being behind it all and all that effort is wasted as it is revealed that the Babadook is indeed real. Now, this is a fairly standard route for a story like this to take but this might be one of the few times when the story would greatly benefit from not having confirmed supernatural elements to it; from the setup, it feels like this is going in the direction of The Number 23 with its ending, only better, but it doesn’t deliver on the setup much to my disappointment. To make matters worse, the ending is… kind of bizarre and not in any good way. After Amelia stands up to the Babadook, it stays at their house as what I can only assume is a pet. This is a serious letdown and a bit too goofy for this kind of story; especially considering how much more intense it was getting leading up to the climax.

However, with that said, quite a lot of the film’s bulk is underwhelming for one simple reason: Samuel. Samuel might be one of the most irritating characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, if not the most irritating. Sure, he’s only irritating in that real world sense in that he acts like a normal six-year old kid, flaws and all, but his constant screaming and general annoyances severely detract from most of the film’s buildup. This is a major problem considering one of the most important elements of the production is the relationship between Samuel and his mother, with a lot of the tension coming from not knowing exactly what Amelia is going to do to Samuel; since Samuel pretty much sucks up a lot of good points whenever he’s onscreen, I doubt it was the filmmaker’s intent for the audience to be rooting for Amelia to give this film a downer ending. That might sound callous, and that’s because it is, but the kid seriously gets that unwatchable at points.

All in all, this is extremely flawed but an admittedly decent horror film. While the cinematic language can get a little too obtuse at times for people who don’t study film theory (And yes, despite all my pretenses of knowing what I’m talking about concerning films, that includes myself) and it is let down by an underwhelming ending, the scares build up to a good crescendo and the Babadook itself is a rather ingenious bit of creature creation. It is, at the very least, a sign of good things to come and I hope Kent continues to make films and ever improving on her craft. It’s better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as the story ideas here showed quite a lot of promise, more so than any that that movie offered, but it ranks below Penguins Of Madagascar, which simply gave me mor enjoyment. Feel free to leave a comment below with your own thoughts on the movie; this is another critical hit that I’m not as fussed about, so I’m fully prepared for whatever vitriol may come my way for this unpopular opinion of the film.

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