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…

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady making who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

Why are you painting my house?

mother!
(SPOILERS) Darren Aronofsky has a reasonably-sized chin, but on this evidence, he’ll have reduced it to a forlorn stump with all that stroking in no time at all. And then set the remains alight. And then summoned it back into existence for a whole new round of stroking. mother! is a self-indulgent exercise in unabated tedium in the name of a BIG idea, one no amount of assertive psued-ing post-the-fact can turn into a masterpiece. Yes, that much-noted “F” cinemascore was well warranted.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

Let the monsters kill each other.

Game of Thrones Season Seven
(SPOILERS) Column inches devoted to Game of Thrones, even in “respectable” publications, seems to increase exponentially with each new season, so may well reach critical mass with the final run. Groundswells of opinion duly become more evident, and as happens with many a show by somewhere around this point, if not a couple of years prior, Season Seven has seen many of the faithful turn on once hallowed storytelling, and at least in part, there’s good reason for that.

Some suggest the show has jumped the shark (or crashed the Wall); there were concerns over how much the pace increased last year, divested as it was of George RR Martin’s novels as a direct source, but this year’s succession of events make Six seem positively sluggish. I don’t think GoT has suddenly, resoundingly, lost it, and I’d argue there did need to be an increase in momentum (people are quick to forget how much moaning went on about seemingly nothing happening for long stretches of previ…

James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.

Thunderball (1965)
Look up! Look down! Look out! Her comes the biggest Bond of all! So advised the poster for the fourth 007 cinematic feast. Biggest it most definitely was, but unfortunately in almost every other respect the finished film is inferior to its three predecessors. Nevertheless, the approach taken by the producers (a favourite of Hollywood generally) was to throw enough money at the screen in the hope it would result in higher box office receipts. Which proved a successful one on this occasion. It remains the highest grossing Bond film (inflation-adjusted), in the US.