Saturday, May 24, 2014


Ever stayed up for so long that you hallucinated? Amelia's been doing that for seven years. Her husband died in a car crash the same night she gave birth to their son. People keep reminding her of it. They are often the same people who tell her to get over it. Her hyperactive seven year old Samuel makes weapons and freaks the other kids out by talking to invisible monsters. At one point early on there is a bullseye depiction of her exhaustion as a kind of time lapse effect (frame removal?) takes her sleeping face from midnight to daytime in about two seconds. Hours of sleep can't dent her fatigue. Then there's the Babadook.

Her son has night terrors and can take some assuaging at bedtime. Reading to him works (even if he sometimes presses replay). But one night when Samuel is given his choice of book he takes a big red popup number from the shelf called Mr. Babadook. A kind of Maurice Sendak by way of Francis Bacon, it is a starkly nightmarish threat with ghastly active illustrations on every page. From that night Samuel lives in even more fear. He wakes her at night with tales of the Babadook until she starts wondering about it herself.

Outside she works as a nurse in geriatric but the stress of the fatigue is bearing down on her. Samuel's school want to put a monitor on the already socially outcast boy and she withdraws him from there. He has a seizure which compells her to keep him at home. When the social workers turn up she's unkempt, her house is a mess, Samuel wakes from a groggy sleep and complains about the drugs and she tells them what appears to be a fantasy about a cockroach infestation. Not looking good. Gets worse. Since she has started seeing the Babadook in the house she takes the book from the inaccessibly high wardrobe and barbeques it in the yard but there it is again, this time reassembled to contain more violence and this time it's personal. Looking worse.

If you saw the trailer for this film you could be forgiven for expecting one of James Wan's cattle-prod sessions (normal life BOO normal life BOO normal life, possible threat, false alarm BOO!) with a supernatural baddie that creates a chasm between parent and child to be bridged by common struggle. This is not that film. We're not in this one for the jumps and jolts (though there are a few) nor a string of naff self-aware jokes about the horror genre. We are being invited to go somewhere hard but our guide has both compassion and understanding. That might count for little in some scenes of confronting emotional wrench (for both characters and audience) but even they feel drawn with assurance. This is a horror movie it's just not a cliched one. That's why you should see it.

It is a sustained study in grief and stress which, while it might seem to tread its own water at points or overstate at others, is being guided firmly. I was reminded less of Sinister or Insidious here than of Hideo Nakata's sublime Dark Water and its crescendo of threatened motherhood and whose hundred minutes contain only two jolts but a wealth of atmosphere and worry) with its sombre pallette (the colour scheme on show here is strong but not self congratulatory) and central humanity. We are witness to troubling things but they add rather than draw from the genre. I can't say that I've seen the paralysing terror of a parent's anger more forcefully loosed on screen than here. Amelia's episodes of rage which can lift her over the floor or give her the climbing skills of a jaguar are hard to watch. That's after you get past the near constant tension and sense of mounting dread.

But this is not a three-act thing. The trailer and the opening do suggest that it will be but after awhile that force loses power as we are immersed in the depths of the situation. And then when that errs toward repetition and irresolution we are finally given the point. It's daringly late but, moving with the energy of the final hour it feels not cathartic but certain. And there I'm also reminded less of conventional horror than the films of Andrej Zuwlawski (particularly Possession) that can frustrate for most of their running time before putting the final pieces on screen which offer the complete picture, thematically rather than narratively. This is what makes The Babadook the strongest Australian film since Snowtown.

Continually impressive cinematography, committed performances, the guts to allow us to (however temporarily) hate an innocent child character, the bottle to avoid the proven way of cheese and popcorn and join the contemporary praxis and stick to its guns and (something that for me is as relieving in concept as it is tense in sound) a strong electronic score. I heard Paul Harris' interview with the writer/director Jennifer Kent who hinted that she isn't married to the idea of being a horror director. Bloody hell, I wish she'd reconsider. I'd be the celebrant.

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