Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Babadook

The horror film genre has in recent years come to denote two characteristics – excessive gore and startling jump scares. Both can certainly be frightening and have formed the basis for some good films, but there is far more to being horrified than copious amounts of blood and things that go bump in the night.

The Babadook is a fresh reminder of how the most deeply disturbing horror can come from the dark recesses of people’s minds. In the first half hour it becomes clear that first time director Jennifer Kent is more interested in character than most contemporary horror filmmakers. She withholds scares and takes time to establish the relationship at the heart of the film and flesh them both out as fully-formed characters – Amelia (Essie Davis), a stressed out nurse and mother still haunted by the death of her husband, and her son Samuel (Noah Wieseman), a disturbed six year-old with a fear of monsters.

While the beginning is reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin (another film primarily about a mother-son relationship, a dynamic that is strangely underused in cinema), the discovery on the shelf of a mysterious pop-up storybook called Mr Babadook prompts the film into more frightening psychological horror territory akin to Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion, as Amelia gradually starts to lose grip of reality cooped up in her home.
Perhaps the film The Babadook most resembles though is The Shining. Like that film, much of The Babadook is confined to a claustrophobic four-walled setting, with a mixture of supernatural and psychological forces all provoking characters to commit awful deeds that somewhere deep in their subconscious they desire.

It is to Kent’s great credit that her film is, in some sense, better than Stanley Kubrick’s classic. The Shining is remembered and loved mostly for its deeply unsettling atmosphere and typically extroverted performance from Jack Nicholson, but as a representation of one character descending into psychosis, The Babadook is more convincing. Kubrick was more about cold detachment and form than he was about character, and that hardly distracted from the brilliance of his output, but there is a sense of intimacy and even believability in the psychological realism of The Babadook that exposes just how little the protagonists of The Shining felt like real people.

All the early work to establish character, as well as some brilliantly convincing acting from Essie Davis, help build the foundations for the psychological horror and internal struggle that ensues. So much so that as the film develops we find ourselves relating to and adopting the point of view the kind of person who we’d otherwise only hear about in sensationalised tabloid stories.

Aside from all these fascinating psychological insights, Kent demonstrates some great stylistic touches and unlikely humour. She’s especially brilliant at depicting the disorientating state of mind between being awake and asleep that insomnia causes, and the experience of watching the second half is all the more disconcerting for our lost sense of time.

She still makes use of the horror staples of gore and scare jumps, but underpins them with such intense emotional feeling that they feel more like manifestations of our deepest darkest thoughts than mere cheap thrills, and render most other recent entries into the genre as shallow and superficial. Rounded off by an ending that withholds from offering an easy answer to the questions of mental illnesses raised in a manner that a lesser film would have neatly resolved, The Babadook is one of the most interesting and involving horror films in recent years. 


No comments:

Post a Comment