Tuesday, December 16, 2014
I went into “The Babadook” under a kind of misapprehension. I’d heard a bit about the movie—it would have been difficult, as a working film reviewer to not have—but not orally, so I thought that the title was pronounced with a long “o” or even a sort of “u,” so it rhymed with “Luke,” or, more pertinently, an obscure Italian-American slang word that Robert De Niro uses in “Raging Bull,” that word being “mamaluke.” As in, “I look like a mamaluke.” “A WHAT?” “Like a mamaluke. Like the mamaluke of the year.” Under this misapprehension, I actually underestimated this horror movie, the debut feature written and directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent.
I was wrong. Both about the pronunciation of the title character—it’s a short double-“o,” as in “look” or “book”—and what it implied for the movie, which as it turned out, is, in my opinion, the finest and most genuinely provocative horror movie to emerge in this still very-new century. Both a relentless psychological thriller with heavy primal stuff on its mind and a full-throttle slam-bang scare-fest, it delivers raw sensation without insulting the intelligence the way the more sensationalist but also essentially trite pictures in the New Horror Paradigm along the lines of “Insidious” tend to do. This is strictly my opinion, I am quick to point out. So impressed was I by “The Babadook” that upon seeing it I tweeted that I thought it might be the first capital-G “Great” horror movie of the 21st Century and was almost immediately beset upon by a couple of guys who thought I was out of my mind. “The Babadook” was both a snoozefest and ridiculous, and superior films included “Sinister” and “The Conjuring.” Now I’m not sure that “ridiculous” is a word that ought to be applied to horror movies, especially if you’re implying by comparison that stuff like “Sinister” and “The Conjuring” is NOT ridiculous. It’s all ridiculous in a sense. What makes a difference is how purposeful the ridiculousness is made to seem.
In “The Babadook,” a sense of urgency establishes itself immediately in a nightmare scene in which Essie Davis’ Amelia is being rushed to the hospital…and this really is a nightmare scene. The urgency is over, the child she was being rushed to the hospital to deliver is now in early elementary school. And the father is dead, killed in an accident during that trip to the hospital. And the child, a little boy, is a pip. Samuel (the cherub-faced Noah Wiseman, giving one of the most amazing and intense child-actor performances I’ve ever seen) spends a lot of time playing games and concocting crude weapons with which to protect himself and his mum from imaginary enemies, and he’s at work on this project day and night, loudly. When his vigilance isn’t literally wreaking havoc on the small house within which he and Amelia live in near-isolation, Sam is a needy clinger who won’t let his mum sleep. He’s a terror at school and he very nearly kills another child, the daughter of Amelia’s sister Claire, whose patience with the increasingly frazzled Amelia is wearing thin. The situation’s a nasty mess, and Kent really makes the viewer resent little Sam about it, particularly after little Sam discovers a rather malevolent children’s book that warns of the evil household influence of a nasty man called, yes, The Babadook.