Skip to main content

The more you deny, the stronger I get.

The Babadook
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Jennifer Kent’s feature debut received a plethora of admiring notices on its release, acclaimed as a genuinely scary and seriously subtextual horror movie. The Babadook is certainly a well-made picture, and features a stunning performance from Essie Davis as a fractured parent stricken with grief and plagued by demons. But is it really all that special or different? It is virtually incumbent on horror to promise critical readings, deserved or otherwise, and this one is actually more effective before it reduces to overtly Repulsion-esque fare.


Kent’s screenplay offers little in the way of narrative twists and turns so, other than the old “the monster was in her mind all along”, it doesn’t have a whole lot else in its arsenal. I wouldn’t call the last half pedestrian, but the beats are decidedly familiar. More, the fear factor of Davis’ beleaguered widow Amelia, possessed by the title character and railing against son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, plausibly eccentric and unsettling when he needs to be), takes the form of slightly clumsy broad strokes, distancing us from a far more immediate and recognisable abuse scenario.


The picture’s trump card comes prior to this, setting its store by positing Samuel as the one of questionable disposition (the disruptive kid at school, consumed with dark thoughts and actions, who receives the blame even though everything he does is a consequence of his parent’s behaviour). He’s the one going on interminably about the Babadook, driving his mother and extended family to distraction. There are also the classic intimations of demon child horror movies; apparently hugging her mum inappropriately, entering her the bedroom while she is masturbating, (apparently) scratching out a photo of Amelia and her husband and (apparently) putting glass in her soup.


But then the picture switches; Amelia inhales essence of Babadook and begins acting out. We realise that the (eerily over-protective) son really is defending his mother from evil. Unfortunately, the reveal is only briefly effective, as the picture veers into a welter of horror clichés of the disturbed kind. Amelie wanders about the house with a kitchen knife, sees glimpses of the Babadook everywhere (some of these are mildly effective; others, such as an attack on her car while driving, are risible), finds her kitchen infested with cockroaches (oh lord, not cockroaches!) and is plagued by a troublesome tooth she plucks out in her possessed state.


Worse, Kent feels obliged to indulge the very most over-used of horror tropes, pet violence. We know that the poor pooch is getting to get it as soon as we witness a strangled hound in The Bababook book, and sure enough she breaks its neck and drops the poor pooch inert on the kitchen floor. What has been a picture lending itself to subtle shadings and interpretations suddenly finds itself with little or no restraint.


The Babadook is told from Amelia’s point of view, so the actual manner in which we come to realise her affliction as all-consuming is quite well characterised. Kent just doesn’t really know what to do when she gets there. Amelia resents Samuel, who has replaced the husband she really longs for; she refuses to celebrate her son’s birthday (the day her husband died), but it’s only when we realise the extent of her malaise that this seems wholly unreasonable. It’s the same with the access-barred basement full of his possessions.


The problem is, the picture is so precise in its metaphor that Kent ends up diluting its effectiveness and resonance. The Shining plays with ambiguity of how much is in Jack’s head and how much the Overlook itself is mental, but The Babadook invites an all-encompassing reading of maternal madness. Such that Amelia taking her imprisoned grief an on-the-nose bowl of worms at the conclusion (feeding her grief just enough, keeping it in check). The monochrome decoration of the house adds to this sense of the over-stated. It could be the sort of thing you see in a Tim Burton picture; I almost expected it to splash with colour once the family was released.


On the plus side, the rendering of the terror book itself is great, eerily illustrated and with the kind of deeply disturbing undertones of a Struwwelpeter (Kent has apparently indicated that Amelia is not its author, but it would makes sense for how it got into the house in the first place, and that it is unfinished). 


The more subtle character details are arresting, and allow for less instructive interpretation (Samuel might be labelled aspergic, and the recourse to medicate him by a frustrated parent might be regarded as a critique of the tendency to control that which is non-conforming; the Alzheimer’s neighbour is the most sympathetic character, and the one who vouches for Samuel’s ability to see things as they are – it is the suburban ne’er-do-wells like Amelia’s sister and friends who are marked out as blinkered and uncaring).


And Kent has an eye for the rhythm and movement of the scene; the trip to the police station and the sight of Babadook clothing on a coat hook; the visit by child services, shadowing Amelia’s movement towards the kitchen; possessed Amelia shimmering across the floor towards her son. Kent has made a handsome picture, blessed with two strong central performances, but in the final analysis it is a little too thematically literal to fully satisfy.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.