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The Babadook

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

“Life is not always as it seems,” Samuel, the young son in The Babadook says, quoting a magician from one of his favorite DVDs. And indeed, watching this official selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, I was kept on the edge of my seat, never entirely sure about whether what I was seeing was “reality” or not.

After seeing a trailer for it, I’d been waiting to check The Babadook out, and got excited to find it on Netflix. I’d mostly seen it billed as a horror movie, and while I’m not a huge fan of that genre, the few glimpses I’d gotten from the trailer seemed to set it apart as not just another horror film following a tired formula. It definitely has some horrific scenes, but most of the terror is psychological, created through skillful filmmaking techniques, cinematography, and great performances. Based on Monster, a short that writer and director Jennifer Kent had previously done, Kent developed The Babadook script, and the movie was released in Australia in May of 2014, with international release following in the fall of 2014.

It opens with a surreal dream sequence, immediately setting a mood. Amelia (played by Essie Davis) is a widow whose husband was killed as they were driving to the hospital for her to give birth to their child. Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is now six years old, and spends time creating elaborate weapons to protect himself and his mom from a monster, and devising plans about how he'll keep them both safe. Sam’s behavior is taking a toll not only on Amelia, but is straining the relationship they have with his Aunt Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and cousin Ruby (Chloe Hurn), and causing issues at school. When he pulls a creepy pop-up book titled Mr. Babadook from the bookshelf one night for a bedtime story, Amelia questions where the book came from and tries to reassure him that the Babadook isn’t real, but Sam is convinced otherwise. (Kudos to the people responsible for creating the actual book that’s used in the film; the spooky details on the pages up the ante, adding lots of apprehension.)

There were a few things about the movie that struck me right from the beginning, but one of the biggest ones was the way the set is used. A lot of the film revolves around Amelia and Sam’s house, and it’s used to great advantage. The outside is more or less plain and drab, and then, once inside, it doesn’t get much cheerier. The color palette is mainly muted, darker colors, giving a feeling of melancholy and even oppression. The same is repeated in much of the costuming; there aren’t a lot of bright colors to be found. There’s also the placement of certain props that look like just ordinary things found in any household, but become more sinister as the plot progresses and the tension builds.

During the film, Amelia and Sam do take some trips around town, but with so much happening within the relatively small box of their house, I felt very “in” the movie and immersed in their experiences.

Samuel (Noah Wiseman) and Amelia (Essie Davis)
Another thing that hit me immediately was the exhaustion on Amelia’s face and in her demeanor. I won’t be able to say enough good things about Essie Davis’ performance, but the way Amelia’s fatigue and stress slowly builds and the subtleties that Davis uses to accomplish that are beyond fantastic. My heart was breaking for Amelia as I watched her struggle, and it was clear that she was shouldering too much and could use someone to step in and help. There’s a scene where she gets a break from work and a moment to herself, and I felt a sense of relief for her. Unfortunately, even that slight moment of respite is ruined. Noah Wiseman deserves a lot of praise for his role too. For such a young actor, his range is impressive: he goes from temper tantrums to terror to brave determination and a whole gamut of other emotions in between with skill that makes Sam a believable, somewhat "typical" kid, even in an extraordinary situation.

Using Amelia’s exhaustion, frustration, grief, and relative isolation, there’s a definite sense of an unreliable storyteller driving the narrative of the story. Things are seen mostly from Amelia and Sam’s point of view, and this is where the label “psychological thriller” fits far better than “horror film.” There’s a slow escalation of events that build along with Amelia’s frame of mind, so I was left questioning almost everything that was happening. This is further enhanced by the use of dream sequences and dream-like techniques, like camera shots focused on Amelia and Sam sheltered under a blanket and fast-motion filming.

And the events that start taking place after Amelia reads Sam the Babadook book are as creepy as the pop-up volume itself. One of the precious few bright spots in their lives is their loving older neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), who at one point tells Amelia that Sam “sees things as they are.” (Robbie [played by Daniel Henshall], one of Amelia's coworkers and a potential love interest, is another bright spot, but, somewhat puzzlingly, the character essentially drops from the storyline partway through.) When lights in the house start flickering--which, as anybody who’s seen horror movies or paranormal shows knows, is a classic marker of supernatural activity--and Sam’s more convinced than ever that something is in their house, I was on edge, again questioning the things that were happening.

Mrs. Roach (Barbara West); something may, or may not be, lurking in the shadows
I raved about the set and use of props before, but as the film continues and the fear starts to build, there are subtle, “old school” techniques that are, to me, far more effective than any CGI. Shadows are used incredibly well, as are different methods to create suspense. I didn’t have to necessarily see certain images onscreen to be scared; my imagination did that work for me exceptionally well. Kept to a minimum, too, were the music score and sound effects. When they were included, it was purposeful and only added to the foreboding that was starting to form a knot in my stomach.

Another creative tool that enhanced the mood of the film was the use of television footage as things escalate in Amelia and Sam’s home. Usually a source of diversion for both mom and son, the images start to take on a different undertone as the movie continues.

As the Babadook became a bigger threat, I began to lose my sense of time. Caught up entirely in Amelia and Sam’s experiences now, I didn’t know if only a couple of days had passed, or if it had been weeks. A slight feeling of disorientation had been building as reality was questioned and mother and son stopped leaving the house, so paired with that, the confusion about the timeline added a whole new layer to my experience.

One of the most important things the film does is leave the mystery of the Babadook to the viewer. I have my own ideas about what it could be, but even as the credits rolled, I still felt like there were holes in my theory. In one scene, there’s (what I feel is) an important clue that possibly explains where the book may have come from; this bit of information wouldn’t seem to really fit into the storyline otherwise. Even so, not knowing if we can really trust the events as we saw them leaves the identity of the Babadook somewhat ambiguous. And while I spent most of the movie nervous, unsettled, and on edge, by the time it ended the mood had shifted considerably, yet another accomplishment that Jennifer Kent, the cast, and crew can add to their long list of well-deserved accolades. The film has won awards from various film festivals in Spain, the US, the UK, France, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and other countries, and both Davis and Wiseman have been nominated and/or won awards for their performances.

A campaign was started to produce the pop-up "Baba-book" that was in the film, and was a success with 6,200 pre-ordered books being sold. Unfortunately, at this time, no more orders are being accepted.

The Babadook writer & director, Jennifer Kent
There’s a great website for The Babadook film at www.thebabadook.com. And, for those with a silly sense of humor, there’s also a spoof on the Babadook’s “catch phrase” over at Funny or Die: www.funnyordie.com.