Thursday, January 8, 2015

THE BABADOOK Is First-Rate Psychological Horror


- On the surface, THE BABADOOK sounds like a run-of-the-mill horror flick: mom reads son a creepy bedtime-story book, monster from said book becomes real and terrorizes family, yada yada yada. But don't let the premise fool you. This Australia-set film is actually one of the most engrossing and original horror movies in years - a movie with a deep psychological edge that makes it about much more than the usual jump scares.

Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mother struggling to raise Samuel, her handful of a son. Davis is flat-out brilliant here. She plays Amelia as someone who genuinely loves and cares for her son, but who is also overwhelmed by the attention he demands. The backstory here is a tragic one: Amelia's husband - Samuel's father - was killed in a car-crash while driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital, on her way to give birth. The trauma of that event has never gone away, and clearly, a small part of Amelia resents her son for indirectly causing her husband's death. But Amelia keeps that resentment bottled up. Outwardly, she is fiercely protective of her son. Though other parents and kids grow weary of Samuel's eccentricities and tendency to act-out, Amelia always stands up for him and begs others to give him a chance.

However, things change when, one night, Samuel picks "The Babadook" as his bedtime story. The book, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, is all about a tophat-sporting, shadowy monster who will haunt you when you're sleeping. Not only is the book inappropriately creepy, but it also seems to be ever-changing, directly addressing, threatening, and taunting Samuel and his mother. Samuel becomes convinced that The Babadook is real, and as such he becomes even more difficult than usual - driving Essie to her wits' end.

The movie keeps ramping up the psychological horror until it reaches almost unbearable levels by the final act. The Babadook himself is rarely seen, more felt - and when he is there is always the question of whether what we're seeing is real, or simply a manifestation of Amelia's escalating madness. But that's really the key to the film - the implication that the monster is in fact some dark, hidden, locked-away side of Amelia that is only now being unleashed. Is there some dark part of us that wants to kill the ones we love? A disturbing thought, sure - but that's what makes THE BABADOOK such an effective horror film - its supernatural horror is rooted in a very human sort of psychology.

Essie Davis, as mentioned, just kills it in the film. It's a very unglamorous role, and she plays it to perfection. She completely inhabits the role of a single mother - worn down, frustrated, protective of her son but also desperate for some separation, for a life apart from him. Later though, when the intensity really escalates and Amelia starts to go a bit mad, Davis is chill-inducingly good - at times empathetic, at times scary-as-hell. Davis' performance is awards-worthy.

Young actor Noah Wiseman also has to be commended for his portrayal of Samuel, who I think will go down as one of the all-time creepy horror movie kids. I give a lot of credit to the film's smart script, but I also credit Wiseman for constantly walking the line between lovable and annoying. His performance completely makes you feel the mixed emotions towards him that Amelia has throughout the film.

Jennifer Kent wrote and directed the movie, and she is now certifiably one to watch. The script is smart and creepy and psychologically rich, and visually, the movie is ultra-effective at sucking you in to this atmosphere of creeping dread. The film really uses little to no jump-scares. Instead, it's all about escalating creepiness that culminates in a satisfyingly insane and intense climax. By grounding the film in a very ordinary-seeming setting of middle-class, suburban Australia, Kent provides the film with a feet-on-the-ground authenticity that makes the weird stuff that goes down that much more resonant and affecting.

That's what's so cool about THE BABADOOK - it's one of the rare horror movies that will *genuinely* creep you out, in a way that buries deep and really sticks with you.

My Grade: A-

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