Spotlight: The Babadook

Indie movies are often hard to recommend.  They tend to be very different from the usual fare you see in theaters, and not always in a good way.  In some ways they can be more rough than their big budget counterparts, often having to rely on their uniqueness rather than flashy special effects.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

The Babadook is one of those times where it does.

Let me get something out of the way: I’ve been planning on watching this movie for a long time but due to multiple factors (including my own laziness) I never got around to it until now.  But I’m glad I did, because The Babadook is something that I’ve wanted out of modern horror movies for a while.  It’s actually about something.  It has a point, a theme behind it that drives the movie and its horror.  Compare this to most modern movies, like Paranormal Activity or Insidious, where the sole point of the movie is to scare you.

The Babadook is an Australian indie horror movie that centers around Amelia Vanek and her son Samuel.  The movie opens with Amelia having a dream about her husband, who we find out a little bit later died in a car crash while rushing Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam.  From the very beginning of the movie you can tell that the relationship between mother and son is a little strained.  When Sam hears monsters in his room, Amelia reads him a bedtime story and then sleeps with him.  But in the middle of the night, she brushes his hands off her and scoots to the other side of the bed.

As the film progresses we see that Sam has some emotional issues.  He insists on creating weapons to battle imaginary monsters and Amelia is actually called in from her job as an assisted living nurse to his school when he brings one of his creations there.  Frustrated with how they’re treating the situation, calling Sam “the boy” instead of by his name, Amelia pulls him out of the school and vows to find him a better one.

But then, one night a red book mysteriously shows up in Sam’s room.  Its title is “Mister Babadook” and the monster it describes becomes Sam’s new obsession.

First and foremost my favorite thing about The Babadook is that it relies on tension and spooky visuals rather than cheap jumpscares.  If you read my review of Blair Witch that I wrote last month you’ll remember that was one of my primary complaints about the movie.  It was obvious that it was an artificial experience meant to scare you rather than tell an interesting or meaningful story.  It focused too often on jarring audio cuts and things jumping out in front of the camera rather than atmosphere or tension.  Not so with The Babadook.  The movie keeps you unsettled, especially with its scenery shots, showing dark and unnerving shots of the house at night.  At one point it shows a time-lapse of dark clouds filling the sky, creating a surreal feeling as you watch.

 

the-babadook-3

 

As I said, the movie prefers tension over shocking the viewer with loud noises.  In fact, it’s not really until the movie hits the half hour mark that anything notably supernatural starts to occur.  Up to that point there’s a few bumps in the night and such, but that’s it.  Things really start to get creepy after Amelia tears apart the Babadook book, frustrated with how it has affected Sam.  But later on, she hears a knock on her front door.  And when she goes to look, she finds the red book sitting on her front step, pages taped back together.  Not only that, but there are now new pages made with the intent to taunt her, saying that the more she denies the existence of the Babadook the stronger it becomes.

For fear of spoiling any more, I’m going to stop talking about the story there.  Suffice it to say, it’s not always a fun movie to watch.  It’s gut-wrenching and raw.  And it does all of this without any gore or exaggerated horror elements.  For example, the scene with the cockroaches coming out from behind the fridge could have easily veered into cheap gross out territory, but it thankfully doesn’t.

 

Nah I'm not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I'm not creeped out, no way.

Nah I’m not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I’m not creeped out, no way.

 

And the movie also holds back when it comes to the appearances of the monster.  You never get to see a whole lot of it during the film, usually catching only quick glimpses (although you see a decent amount during its first major appearance while Amelia is in bed).  And on top of that, the Babadook says very little throughout the movie, making the creature even more mysterious.  Interestingly, I found out that for the monster the director decided to use stop-motion effects, as she wanted the movie “to be all in camera.”  Initially I thought the approach was a little goofy, but the longer the movie went on I realized that it enhanced the surreal nature of the experience.  In fact, if there’s one thing I can really complain about with the presentation of the monster it comes from the sound department.  One of the noises the Babadook makes is a strange, stock dragon roar that I know I’ve heard somewhere else (from a video game I think).  It seems out of place compared to the rest of the sounds, and every time it briefly pulled me out of the experience.

 

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

 

Speaking of criticisms, the only other major problem I had with the film involved the ending.  The ending works as it is, showing us the resolution between Amelia and Samuel’s characters, but we don’t really get any resolution with any other characters in the movie, which I thought was strange since the movie spends a lot of time showing how things fall apart between Amelia and others, specifically with her sister Claire.  It seems like a missed opportunity to me.

The other thing that bothered me about the ending has to do with the Babadook itself.  I won’t go into specifics, but part of the ending feels like it happens simply out of consistency for the rules they made up relating to the monster.  It probably has a deeper symbolic meaning, but for some reason that bit of the movie’s ending just stood out to me as being different from the rest of it.

But in the end The Babadook has a lot of heart in it.  The actors who play Amelia and Sam are great, convincingly portraying the strange relationship between mother and son.  Amelia always appears tired and worn, but tries her best to take care of Sam and truly does love him.  Sam in turn loves his mom and says more than once that he wants to protect her.  He speaks his mind, which as the movie shows doesn’t always have the best results.  But together the two of them form a sympathetic pair that serve as the driving force of the entire movie.  It might sound cliche to say, but The Babadook is more than just a spooky movie.  It’s about something altogether human.  And the Babadook itself is more than just a monster.  It’s a metaphor waiting to be interpreted by the audience.

I highly recommend this movie if you like horror movies.  Even if you don’t I still would because of how unique and powerful it is.  It has a greater aim in mind than simply being a scare fest, although I will say it certainly succeeded in getting under my skin at times, especially during the latter half.  But it succeeds because substance and style work hand-in-hand to create a truly atmospheric experience.

It’s not always a pleasant movie to watch, but it will certainly stick with you for a long time.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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