Ba ba ba ba Babadook

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

The Babadook, do­mes­tic hor­ror, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles Amelia (Essie Davis) is a sin­gle mother who lives in a creaky old house with her young son, Sa­muel (Noah Wise­man), a pre­co­cious boy with an over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion and a fond­ness for magic tricks. She is stressed from her job as a care­giver at a home for the el­derly, where her su­per­vi­sor is a mean old witch, and is still griev­ing for her hus­band, who died in an ac­ci­dent while driv­ing her to the hos­pi­tal to give birth to Sa­muel. Now she must deal with Sam’s be­hav­ior prob­lems, which have strained her re­la­tions with her fam­ily mem­bers — with her sis­ter Claire (Hay­ley McEl­hin­ney), for in­stance. Sam is lonely, cru­elly taunted by his cousin, and mis­un­der­stood by adults. He’s un­wel­come at his Aunt Claire’s, and Claire, in turn, re­fuses to visit Amelia’s. In fact, Claire seems to be pun­ish­ing Amelia for Sam’s out-of-con­trol con­duct.

Sam is at that age when he wants to be more in­de­pen­dent, yet he re­mains tied to his mother. He loves her fiercely: She is, for bet­ter or worse, his en­tire world. Amelia sel­dom men­tions her hus­band, and he amounts to lit­tle more than a spec­tral ab­strac­tion for Sam. He likes to go down to the base­ment, against Amelia’s or­ders, to feel his fa­ther’s pres­ence among his old things.

De­spite his de­sire to ma­ture, Sam has not yet out­grown bed­time sto­ries and still be­lieves, per­haps pre­sciently, in monsters hid­ing un­der the bed and in the closet. Even a chil­dren’s book can ter­rify a fan­ta­syprone kid like Sam. He makes dan­ger­ous home­made weapons, which he says are for pro­tect­ing his mother from the monsters. In­stead, they get him in trou­ble at school, and Amelia re­ceives a rep­ri­mand from the prin­ci­pal. Amelia in­sists to her son that the monsters aren’t real — though there seems to be ev­i­dence to the con­trary. This ex­pertly crafted and vis­ually im­pres­sive gem, the first fea­ture- length film by Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Jen­nifer Kent, draws mother and son into a tighter and tighter knot of almost un­bear­able ten­sion and im­parts a sense of em­pa­thy for both that is rare in the hor­ror genre. It’s never clear if the ter­ror that seizes them is purely a dis­tor­tion in their minds, or some­thing far more sin­is­ter, but the film strongly sug­gests that the one can make the other man­i­fest.

Though even the open­ing scenes carry a men­ac­ing air, it’s when a pop-up book called Mis­ter Babadook in­ex­pli­ca­bly shows up in Sam’s stack of chil­dren’s sto­ries that things amp up. Clearly, the book is de­signed to scare the wits out of chil­dren by ex­ploit­ing their fear of things that go bump in the night: “A rum­bling sound, then three sharp knocks: ba-BA-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!”

Davis is i mpres­sive in t he phys­i­cally and emotionally de­mand­ing role of Amelia, a mother slowly suc­cumb­ing to the evil in­sin­u­at­ing it­self into ev­ery as­pect of her life. An omi­nous fore­bod­ing per­vades the film. Like Mary Henry (Can­dace Hilligoss) in Car­ni­val of Souls, Amelia is in a wak­ing night­mare. Sam, on the other hand, is bold, brave, and true, moved by a love so ab­so­lute that he would clearly risk any­thing to save his mother. With only one other film un­der his belt ( The Gift, 2013), Wise­man man­ages to make his trau­ma­tized and dam­aged character highly sym­pa­thetic and be­liev­able.

Mean­while, the scary book has a way of turn­ing up again and again, de­spite Amelia’s at­tempts to be free of it. And her al­ready-shot nerves aren’t helped any by Sam’s as­ser­tion that, once you let it in, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The film gives us at least 30 min­utes of un­re­lent­ing ter­ror that el­e­vates it to near-great­ness. The Babadook de­liv­ers a strong visual style and sharp edit­ing in its treat­ment of the themes of night ter­rors, child abuse and ne­glect, grief, loss, and re­sent­ment. It scores points for not re­ly­ing on the ex­ces­sive gore, misog­y­nis­tic vi­o­lence, and jump scares that plague the genre. Most of the fright­en­ing images come from Alex Juhasz’s creepy, hand-drawn il­lus­tra­tions. And there are some very ef­fec­tive se­quences of vin­tage hor­ror that are shown on the late-night TV shows Amelia watches — a re­flec­tion of her in­creas­ingly tor­mented state of mind. There is much orig­i­nal­ity and not much gra­tu­itous­ness in this. But the film does in­dulge in the full hor­ror treat­ment by turn­ing the in­vi­o­lable re­la­tion­ship of par­ent and child on its head, a trope that of­fers shades of The Shin­ing and Ro­man Polan­ski’s Re­pul­sion. This may not be the great­est hor­ror film of the 21st cen­tury ( The De­scent, any­one?), but it is among the best of the past few years — in spite of a dis­ap­point­ing de­noue­ment that’s pretty much by the num­bers.

— Michael Abatemarco

In­no­cence lost: Essie Davis and Noah Wise­man

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