Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis (as Amelia Vanek); Noah Wiseman (as Samuel Vanek); Daniel Henshall (as Robbie); Hayley McElhinney (as Claire); Barbara West (as Gracie Roach)
Synopsis: A widow Amelia Vanke (Davis) and her son Samuel (Wiseman) find a sinister children's pop-up book in their bookcase about a certain Mr. Babadook. Her life is a troubled one - her husband died taking her to the hospital to give birth, very little in her life beyond her work and home, and her son troubled himself. The pressures of these factors alongside a supernatural entity terrifying their home could push her into demonic behaviour.
Within the last month or so there's been a plethora of articles online and in print about women in the film industry, particularly in the role of director. I suspect part of the reason for these articles is to tie into the new film Suffragette (2015), which I have little interest in at all, but the issue of the lack of women in major occupations is one I think about a great deal. A film actually has to be good, the progressiveness of who directed and made it useless if the final result is poor, but the subject concerns me as in a sane world there would've been more women prominent in the film industry long before now. In horror cinema, because of its fan base's own hemisphere, this feels even more of an issue, a discrepancy in the lack of women making films against how there are plenty of male and female horror movie fans in existence.
It depends on the films, and one of the things I dread is if I find a horror film directed by a women/by women to be poor or disappointing, as there's only a few out there. Sadly the Soska Sisters, even with American Mary (2012), haven't shown anything of interest for me despite their popularity, emphasising this fear. Thankfully, there's Hélène Cattet, co-director of Amer (2009) and The Strange Colours of Your Body's Tears (2013) with Bruno Forzani, Ana Lily Amirpour with the fascinating A Girl Walks Home Alone At Midnight (2014), and films from the late Antonia Bird's Ravenous (1999) to one of the greatest living auteurs working of any gender, Claire Denis, and her take on vampirism in Trouble Every Day (2001). Jennifer Kent with The Babadook can be added to this handsome list.
Alongside how isolating it would be without female voices in the genre, miserable to be stuck in an all-male club if it was allowed to descend into that, no sane person of any gender would want to negate entire areas of perspective on the tropes of the genre that women would provide, or could be the only ones to provide, if they wrote and directed more films alongside working in the productions in front of and behind the camera. While The Babadook is a clear metaphor for trauma and the difficulty of raising a child, what's more significant is how it eliminates the stereotype found in many male made horror films of the loyal housewife and the angelic moppet. Instead it's replaced with something so visibly more realistic.
Essie Davis in the lead is wonderful, the continuing downward spiral either by a real malignant force or/and the pressures of her life shown in how she can play between a melancholy to volatile behaviour for the character with ease. Noah Wiseman as her son Samuel is also great, especially as children can be a disaster waiting to happen in terms of performance. Samuel emphasises the complexities that few male directed and scripted movies have in depicting parenthood, especially from a mother's perspective, the fact that he is as much an unbearable offspring, creeping out other children and throwing temper tantrums, as much as he is a lovable child too. Children, even from my perspective as someone who is far from becoming a father or even an uncle, are not angels or devils but living ids whose difference from adults is that they don't try to defend their bouts of screaming. That Samuel is clearly coping with having no father since he was born, and has possible ADD, makes the character suitably complex, both obnoxious at times but also a lot more mature than many children his age in understanding the world.
The most honest part of the film, where it shows that this is attempting to be a far more serious take on a mother figure in this genre and as a character drama, is the one that you cannot really skip around in vague words - when, because she is stressed and needs to her own "private time" to relax, Amelia isolates herself in her bedroom and gets a vibrator out. There's are plenty of moments like this, or that her son is as capable of being a little monster even if he's oblivious to the consequences of his behaviour, or that its far more difficult, more so as a single parent, to look after a child, that are rarely talked about in films.
As for the horror, while The Babadook has clichés, the decision to match a naturalistic drama with very overt gothic influences is inspired. As much of this for me honestly, is that it's an Australian film, Australia a place for me that doesn't necessarily evoke the tone of this film. In fact the film reminds me of Tim Burton but with that style severed of the safety net of his films - of a fun charm even with the most gruesome content - allowing for a more disturbing tone to the content. That Jennifer Kent openly references the beginning of cinema, Georges Méliès films shown to represent Amelia's growing delirium awake throughout the whole night in front of the television, shows she already has a greater scope of phantasmagoric influences than most (male) horror directors popular now have.
From the lingered on images and to use of sound, the carefulness in how the scares are depicted are filtered through the vein of a fairytale crossed with a potential German Expressionist influence, by the masterpiece of production design that is the Mr. Babadook pop-up book that starts the curse on the mother and son, one you'd want to own in your book collection but you'd keep out of reach from children as it would give you nightmares let alone your son or daughter. The film, barring The Shining (1980), doesn't evoke obvious films like the aforementioned Poltergeist but instead a rich pool of fantastical cinema and classic horror within a modern setting.
In keeping with the two sides of the film - a psychodrama and a horror tale - The Babadook has two sides to its visual look. One is a natural, bleached out visual palette, completely drained of colour at points, fitting the stillness and listlessness Amelia suffers through greatly. Interestingly, Jennifer Kent learnt to make films while working on the set of Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003), and while this is a drastically fuller film in look, the same starkness of that film and von Trier's middle period when he rejected his highly elaborate style for a few years can actually be seen when you learn of this. The other side is the bold, macabre side of rich blacks and horrible things hiding in them.
Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Not a film with abstract content.
As stated, to go into this film and find that its actually great is heart warming. The reviews praising this film actually put me off it, having learnt that universal acclaim doesn't mean a film is any good, but in this case the praise was for a worthy movie.