MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)

The-Babadook-PosterGuys, I totally did it again. I DO NOT LEARN!  You know the thing where a horror movie gets great critical reviews and I get all excited and can’t wait to see it and then I finally sit down for it and by that time my expectations are the size of China, and then, wah wah wah, it sucks?  Yep. That happened.   Well, “sucks” is a little too strong here.  But definitely a major disappointment.

I’d actually been wanting to see this film, an Australian independent, since last spring, when I bought a ticket for it at the Seattle International Film Festival and then failed to make it to the showing.  Oops!  After that, I forgot all about it until it opened last month in limited release and I started to see raves galore about it all over the Internet.

What I kept reading was that it was a smart, unique, and truly terrifying horror movie.  So, I was expecting some clever, satisfying scares.  As it turns out, though, The Babadook isn’t a horror movie at all.  If I had to sum it up in a phrase, that phrase would be “cautionary tale about the perils of single parenting.” In other words, it’s only “scary” if the thing you fear most is exhausted, angry moms yelling at tantrum-throwing kids.  And if that’s the case, you probably get enough shivers in your week simply by shopping at Costco; you don’t need a movie for more.

The Babadook is about a middle-aged mom named Amelia whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel. Cut to about six or so years later, and Samuel has grown up to be a challenging child, to say the least. And understandably so: the story of his father’s death has clearly unsettled him since he was old enough to understand it, as has the emotional lability of his mother.

In response, Samuel has become obsessed not just with the usual monsters of childhood, but more specifically with protecting his mother from those monsters (because she is in what seems to him to be constant peril) — to the point where he has begun to devise elaborate weapons to combat them, which he frequently smuggles into school.

Finally, his school’s administration has had enough and they expel him, sending Amelia into a rapid downward spiral.  Right about that same time, a mysterious children’s book about a top-hat-wearing, black-clad monster called Mister Babadook appears in their house.  When Samuel asks Mom to read it, she begins, only to find it horrifically violent and terrifically creepy just a few pages in — the story of a monster that, as soon as you learn of it, will appear in physical form and torment you until the end of time.  Before she’s even a third of the way through, Samuel has a terror-fueled panic attack, screaming inconsolably in fear.  She slams it shut and later burns it in the backyard, hoping that’ll be the end of it.

But then the book reappears, and shortly after that, the Babadook himself shows up — just like he said he would.  Or does he?  Remember how I said in my recent review of Willow Creek that it’s important for monster movies to offer a plausible alternative narrative, one that doesn’t involve monsters?  That makes a monster movie all the more terrifying, because it allows you to maintain your logical disbelief in Sasquatch while still relating completely to the fear expressed by the characters.  You aren’t sure what’s going on, really, or what to believe anymore, and that mistrust of everything inside and out is what can make for a pretty satisfying chill.

This movie does a great job of presenting that alternative narrative — is it the story of an actual monster or the story of an exhausted, grief-stricken mother’s rapidly dwindling sanity (and/or the dwindling sanity of her son; hard to tell who was the driver, there).

The problem was, I felt like it ended up going too far in that alternative direction — there wasn’t a single, even-fleeting moment in which I wondered if the Babadook might be real, better judgment or not. And that lack of doubt essentially stripped away any potential for this film to be truly scary.  For me, anyway. It made it flop lifelessly to the ground, when, really, there was a lot of potential in this story for flight.

The acting, for example, especially of the little boy, is incredibly powerful and good.  Essie Davis, the mom, is also at her best here, though in a few places she kind of overdid the hysterics for me. Despite the lack of scares, though, this should’ve, at the very least, been a very moving drama about a struggling single mother who had experienced a traumatic loss — only, it wasn’t. I knew I was supposed to align with her, worry about her, and care about what she was going through. But, instead, I grew impatient with her quickly, largely because she was so viciously and ineptly harming her child, who had suffered just as much, and possibly even more (since he clearly felt the death of his father was his fault for being born).  If this had been a film more focused on their relationship, minus the excess monster gimmickry, it could’ve been so much more powerful. The monster element should’ve been a tool, not a major story line. Instead that shared, and thus blurred, focus made the film seem very muddled in genre very quickly, unsure what it was actually trying to accomplish and, in so doing, accomplishing very little at all.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terrible movie — not at all. It’s intelligent, beautifully made (the visuals are wonderful, especially the book itself), and well-acted, etc. But it’s also not all that special, making the critical raves particularly puzzling. There’s nothing terribly unique about this story — the crazy-parent/crazy-child emotional conflict felt so tired to me, and even the Babadook himself looked strangely familiar (though I can’t place this image I have in my head, which is driving me nuts; I’ll keep looking).

In any case, if what you’re really looking for is an authentically scary movie, with authentic characters you authentically root and despair for, I’m going to send you right on back to the surprisingly effective Willow Creek, which was definitely the best such movie I saw all year.  On the other hand, a lot of people really, really liked this film, so it’s worth checking out for yourself. Then again, on the other hand (yes, I’ve got three hands; what of it?), I’ve noticed most of those people were mainstream film critics or the people who tend to agree with them; the avid horror fans whose blogs I follow seem to have been more disappointed than impressed. In that way, The Babadook kind of reminds me of The Conjuring — which brings me right back to my first paragraph: will I never learn?

[Amazon buy/rent | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror (except: no)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

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3 Responses to “MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    (Liz) Oh no! I’ve read about this movie, and was also quite interested in it. I still may try to see it, and appreciate your fairness in suggesting others come to their own conclusions. You make a good point about the reasonable doubt issue. However, from some of the erudite books and documentaries you’ve reviewed, I can’t help wondering if you’re just too smart or savvy for these types of movies. I’m not criticizing your reviews; I just wonder if that’s part of why you get so disappointed sometimes. Me, I tend to be a bit more forgiving (or is it “credulous?”). Still, I put a fair amount of stock in your reviews … we’ll see …

  2. RogerBW Says:

    I’ll probably still give it a go at some point, but I too put weight on your reviews. (Especially, yeah I’m going to say it again, Tucker and Dale vs evil, which everyone should watch because it’s truly superb.) I’m not generally a big fan of the horror style in the first place…

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