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

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.