27 October 2014

Review: THE BABADOOK

Jennifer Kent's début feature The Babadook is almost too good. Though its story and expressionist horror style are cause for disquiet after seeing it, the more cynical amongst us will be afraid of an American language remake in the next few years, or a sequel along the lines of Babadook Goes Hawaiian. Because in spite of that super-effective trailer, this is a precious thing in mainstream horror- wholly un-cynical and unaffected by the opening-weekend-then-bust model.

On top of that, it's a story that really starts long before its supernatural element kicks in. Amelia is a nurse and single parent to Samuel, a seven-year-old boy with behavioural problems. In addition to all of the grief he gives her with his misbehaviour, either by being unerringly frank with strangers or creating weapons to guard against a hypothetical monster, there's the very real grief that comes with the death of her husband seven years earlier, on the day Samuel was born. In short, Amelia's having sleepless nights even before she reads a mysterious bedtime story aloud, and accidentally invites the titular Mr. Babadook to torment and threaten them both.

All in all, you get the overwhelming impression that Amelia would be headed for some kind of psychological breakdown even without an extra-dimensional gribbly stirring the pot. Samuel clearly drives her up the wall, echoing some of the childish chutzpah and initiative of Rare Exports' Pietari with his weapon building and amateur conjuring. That's all without mentioning her unfulfilling day job and the unaddressed grief for her late husband, and the way in which her mood is writ large by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk's stark, grey shots. The dark influence of the Babadook basically serves to give voice to all of Amelia's repressed resentment and anguish, to memorable effect.

Essie Davis gives a stunning emotional performance in the line of Belen Rueda's turns in arthouse horror films like The Orphanage or Julia's Eyes and brings huge sympathy to the role of the put-upon mother, and Noah Wiseman is a terrific discovery as the troubled rapscallion who so completely and inadvertently isolates his mother. After a certain point, it's basically a two hander, but for the spectre of the Babadook, which marks the best use of blackness in a movie monster since the "big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers" in Joe Cornish's Attack The Block.

In terms of horror movie formula, the lack of easy jump scares here should be reassuring, but in context, the actual effect is that you never know when the next genuinely spine-chilling moment will come. There's no need for obvious soundtrack peaks, which can't fail to make you jump but often fail to linger in the memory, when Kent has so thoroughly worked through the emotional terror and creepy in-camera effects. The film is based on her own 2005 short film Monster and happily, the tone of this version hasn't got lost in the long feature development process.

For all of the aforementioned reasons, The Babadook a horror based in emotional trauma and it feels like the first English language horror film I've seen in ages which actually has a complete story. You should come out of a horror film feeling less scared than when you went in, or else you could have watched any number of hacky remakes or sequels or would-be first chapters. Jennifer Kent approaches her killer concept as supernatural family counselling for a troubled mother and son and the result is undeniably powerful and wickedly subversive.

The Babadook is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen The Babadook, why not share your comments below? I have never been more invested in a dog in a horror movie, so let me know if you can think of any better.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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