“THE BABADOOK” (Sundance Movie Review)
THE BABADOOK is absolutely fraught from its arresting opening sequence, in which single mother Amelia recalls, in nightmare, the car accident that took her husband Oskar away. The only thing that eventually pulls her from the aggressive dreamscape is an unrelenting shout from her son Samuel, who in turn was pulled out of Amelia on that very tragic day. More than an introduction to the stylish, aurally assaulting and often tremendous feature debut from Jennifer Kent, THE BABADOOK’s beginning serves to reveal that Oskar’s demise is still very much at the forefront of Amelia’s mind, with Samuel’s distant cries for help not a close second. Her son’s very existence comes with baggage, and as soon as the audience is hip to such, we’re primed for Kent’s exploring of how to reconcile the natural sentiment of sometimes just not liking your kid.
I’m assuming such a feeling is present in all parents, not being one myself, and Kent doesn’t judge Amelia for harboring such—at least not until it’s an all consuming outrage. Both mother and son are anxious, frenzied (Amelia’s hair is always escaping its tie-up), but entirely sweet. Samuel is wildly misbehaved, obsessing over monsters, creating weapons out of wood and fighting the fear that something is holding his mother back from loving him entirely. After all, they’ve never celebrated Samuel’s birthday on the actual date. Amelia is trying her best, however. She is affectionate and empathetic, letting her growing distress simmer, and even humoring Samuel’s fixation by checking the house’s every door for a creature.
Their house remains bleak however, as Kent and cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk rove a creaking, grey, shadowy gothic structure of a small home, surrounded by gnarled trees and overt references to expressionist cinema. It’s not the comforting gothic aesthetic of some horror, especially once the titular being begins his menace. Kent is able to convey and create the anxiety that in every corner and behind every door is a presence, be it The Babadook itself or that budding resentment.
The presence grows when, one evening, Samuel picks a mysterious book from his nighttime reading shelf. The utterly morbid “Mister Babadook” unsettles the tyke, mother and viewer alike as Kent crafts eerie, truly threatening atmosphere out of close-ups of Edward Gorey-like simple pop-up paper and the rhyming structure of its harsh, murderous prose. That juxtaposition carries throughout as even the towering, pitch black creature—seemingly made of oil and shadow—makes his existence known with an almost silly refrain of, “Ba-ba-dook-dook-dook.” It’s funny until it isn’t, not dissimilar to the bizarre, goofy behavior in a David Lynch film that transcends into outright off-putting. And that’s not to mention his accompanying appearance, that of an almost storybook Coffin Joe.
This long-fingered, top hat-adorned entity wants to be “let in,” and when Amelia succumbs, star Essie Davis’ performance is truly astonishing, working in tandem with the vision of Kent to paint a mother on the front lines within her psyche. It’s an iconic horror tradition, the monstrous mother, one we’ve been inundated with in the last year from MAMA, to THE CONJURING, to BATES MOTEL, to CARRIE, to INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 and so forth. The best of that crowd—despite Vera Farmiga’s always fantastic work in BATES—was Lili Taylor’s performance in THE CONJURING, and it’s stunning how Davis here rivals her. One moment, outside of any traditional scare beats, frighteningly and perfectly conveys the conflict that can rage within a mother (as well as one possessed) as Amelia snaps from a ghastly roar into a devastated cry while confronting her son (Noah Wiseman, with a serious handle on this complex, sad little boy).
The end moments of THE BABADOOK land elegantly, culminating in a final note on generally keeping a healthy balance of mind, essential to which is the need of horror stories such as THE BABADOOK to confront this taboo nature of parental unease and anger.