Movie Review: The Babadook

I read Tom’s review of The Babadook on his blog, digitalshortbread.com, and he gave The Babadook some serious props. He ended his review by saying, “But as a former skeptic myself, this has restored my faith in the genre for sure.”

I did not take that phrase lightly. Calling a film genre-defining is no small compliment. I had read plenty of reviews from my blogging compatriots and all had given The Babadook similar marks.

I have remained removed from the horror genre for multiple reasons. For one, the heyday of horror came to an end a long time ago. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Shining (1980) remain personal favorites of mine. They both had superb acting, bone-chilling dialogue and a death grip on audiences. The Exorcist (1973) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) remain highly recommended from horror aficionados. It’s worth noting none of these films were made in the last two decades.

I admit I liked The Cabin in the Woods, but with the minor exceptions of The Conjuring and Insidious, the only two films I’ve read consistent applause for, Hollywood horror has become the bottom dweller of the industry, somehow falling below boneheaded comedies.

Paranormal Activity has a fandom it has no right to when you look at the product. Sorry, but 90 minutes of found footage isn’t scary. It’s boring.

My ears mute when anyone compliments the Saw films. I once, against my better judgement, allowed a girlfriend to convince me to watch one of those things. Never again. It was one of the worst film experiences of my life, not because the film scared, but because it was filmed torture, taped and edited in the most gruesome way possible, relying on visuals to traumatize. There is a very clear, definitive boundary between horror and drafting murder methods for future serial killers. This observation is coming from someone who has seen and read very dark material. My lack of enjoyment was not because “I didn’t have the stomach for it.” It’s because this type of material has no right or place on the silver screen.

The Saw films, in my opinion, perfectly illustrate the problem with 21st century horror: they rely on visuals. The driving force behind any film, especially a film that finds itself in the niche of horror, is suspense, an element which cannot be seen, only felt. Predictability will blight any movie. You can’t substitute visuals for suspense. Visuals are instant subjects. Once you reveal it, you can’t reveal it again like we haven’t seen it before. You have to go at it from a whole different angle. The surprise shudder has been used. It’s like a power move in a video game. If you miss or don’t get a critical, you missed out on its full potential. You don’t get a second shot. That was it.

And time and time again, the men and women behind the camera have used this silver bullet too early, too late or just not effectively at all. To make another comparison, suspense is the horror director’s baseball bat and some directors of recent years have walked up to the plate with a spoon and left the bat in the on-deck circle. Makes no sense.

That right there might be my biggest complaint, is that horror these days makes no sense: cheap scares made with expensive budgets, experienced actors forced to give thoughtless lines and scripting that has turned visuals into a sumo wrestler’s crutch, forced to support far, far more than it should ever have to. Visuals can only be as good as the material laid out before it. Plot, character and scripting will always be the foundation of film, no matter the genre. If it’s weak, the visuals will slip and slide or crumble entirely. Even if they miraculously stand up straight, what’s the point? Oh, it’s pretty to look at. Sorry but don’t care. There are prettier and smarter things than you that I can look at.

I trust my friends that I follow on here on WordPress though, especially Tom, again at digitalshortbread.com, Australia’s Jordan and Eddie at jordanandeddie.wordpress.com, Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews at dtmmr.com and Luke’s Oracle of Film at oracleoffilm.com. If you have some space on your blogroll, these guys come strongly recommended. Most of the time, they know what they’re talking about. Most of the time.

The Babadook is also on Netflix, so you don’t even have to leave your house to buy it. You have no excuse to pass on this. I’m not a horror guy either.

Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) live alone together and Amelia is worn down. Her husband died in an accident years ago while driving Amelia to the hospital to deliver her son. Now Amelia is a single mother struggling to pay the bills and find time to take care of her psychologically disturbed child.

Before bed one night, Samuel finds a new book to read, Mister Babadook. The book talks of a monster that creeps around your doors and when you let it in, you can never get rid of it. From there, things get a lot worse.

I know that’s a brief synopsis, but I would strongly urge you to avoid the trailer to this film. In my opinion, and this goes for any horror film, it is better to sneak in blind then see some of the scares exposed in a two-minute spot. I watched the trailer after I saw the movie and most of the parts that really got me were partially revealed in the trailer. Avoid it like the plague.

From the introduction through to the end, director and writer Jennifer Kent emphasizes subtlety. The sets are simple. Barren walls, shallow colors, cracked cabinets and common clothes are a few examples. The house’s simplicity is what makes it so creepy. It’s too simple. It has no personal touches.

The wardrobe sets to remove Amelia and Samuel from the rest of the world. Every interaction the two make with others feels out-of-place both by what comes out of these characters’ mouths and by how their clothes clash with the times they live in. Amelia and Samuel appear to live in the 70’s while the rest of the world lives in present day.

The writing is all in the details here and it’s great to finally see a horror film go back to its roots and put words both on and in between the lines. The suspense is felt, the looks from the actors contribute to that and the Kent allowed our own minds to forge the demons in the shadows rather than show us what’s there herself. No matter how good a designer is, they’ll never be able to conjure something scarier than what an individual’s mind can devise. We’re all scared by different things and it’s very difficult to shape something in a way that many can be horrified. Sometimes it’s easier to let the audience scare themselves with a little prodding from the filmmakers.

Kent’s film builds and so patience is required for this outing but not near the patience required for a slow drama. I’m unsure if patience is the right word here because anticipation is more the term that should be used when referring to The Babadook.

The score and visuals wrap themselves around you, the acting continues to sizzle and the special effects are gripping. All the pieces are there. You just can’t get rid of The Babadook.

Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.  

90-100  It’s a great movie and definitely one worth buying. (InterstellarChappieAmerican BeautyGone GirlMulan)

80-89   It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (The Cable GuyThe Cabin in the WoodsTears of the SunEdge of TomorrowThe Amazing Spider-Man 2)

70-79   It’s okay but I’ve seen better. It has its moments, but it has its flaws, too. (EquilibriumDead Snow: Red vs. DeadSnowpiercerThe FamilyWhen the Game Stands Tall)

60-69   It’s got plenty wrong with it but I still got enjoyment out of this one. (Black SheepTwistedParkerHouse at the End of the StreetThe Raven)

50-59   This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (BlitzThe PunisherDrive HardRun All NightRage)

40-49   This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (CrankErasedI, FrankensteinThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

30-39   Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (CenturionPlanet of the ApesStonadosRedemptionPride and Prejudice)

20-29   What did I just watch? Cliches, stupidity, nothingness, did I mention stupidity? Just…wow. (The ColonyIn the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege TaleThe GreyX-Men: Days of Future PastThor: The Dark World)

0-19      Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (OutcastSabotageGallowwalkersTucker & Dale vs. EvilSafe)

My score for The Babadook: 93.

The fact that Jennifer Kent had to start a Kickstarter campaign to get the funds to do this only makes me all the more impressed. The Babadook‘s 97 on Rotten Tomatoes is certainly warranted given the performances of Australian star Essie Davis and first-timer Noah Wiseman, the stories inside the story and its continued skill to creep the crap out of me. The tree in this film will be forever enshrined in film lore just as The Babadook fiend will remain a cult classic like Slender Man. I have to agree with Tom. Genre-defining indeed.

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5 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Babadook

  1. Tom says:

    Oh man, that’s great to read man! Thrilled for the linkage as well, much obliged. 🙂

    The Babadook is a masterclass in suspense-building in my book, and this line here of yours captures my greatest take-away in a nutshell: “No matter how good a designer is, they’ll never be able to conjure something scarier than what an individual’s mind can devise.”

  2. lukebbtt says:

    Great review. The Babadook shows that intelligence and horror can go hand in hand. It does mean that all the ‘it’ll do’ horrors I watched for the last decade are now unbearable. I cannot stand them.

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