After watching Babadook (2014), I am thoroughly convinced that, from here on out, producers need to consign direction of horror films to the girls. They are so much better at it than those dullard boys. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent,The Babadook is too good for genre fanboys, whose diet is commonly relegated to sophomoric cravings for trite-tasting tawdry titillation. Kent’s Babadook is for far more refined palates.
In the early days of cinema, when German Expressionism’s shadow still influenced Hollywood, the quality of horror films was such that when a studio assigned a director a horror film, it often meant his status had just been elevated several notches. Unfortunately, the boatload of hacks had their say over the years, dragging the genre to that proverbial barrel bottom. With few exceptions, horror has never recovered, and its wretched reputation today is wholly deserved. Mechanical plots, cardboard characters, blatant misogyny, moronic humor, and deafening assaults pass for imagination to a growing horror audience that has largely forgotten how to even watch a film.
The genre bucks forged an unspoken patriarchal set of genre rules, and it did not take long for the rot of banality to set in. For a brief period, it seemed as if it was on the shoulders of independent filmmakers to offer an alternative tonic. Within mere decades, however, the indies had largely succumbed to imitating the well-cashed trash of the studios, which begs the question: “What then is the point of independent film?” Why settle for a low-budget, generic product that offers the same ingredients as the name brand that preceded it? At least the name brand has a better-looking box and doesn’t cost any more than an indie festival ticket. Given the status and quality of independent filmmaking, Robert Downey Jr.’s recent dismissals and criticisms appear justified.
Yet, in her directorial debut, independent Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent evokes the childhood of cinema, via Georges Mileis and LOtte Reiniger’s 1926 cut-out animation The Adventures Of Prince Achmed In these films Kent locates a springboard with no preexisting rules of film and genre.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, widowed when her husband was killed in a traffic accident while taking his wife—in labor—to the hospital. Amelia’s son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), fancies himself a magician straight out of a Melies film. He is also a perennial misfit, and quite the handful. Samuel happens upon a pop-up book featuring the Babadook; a dark, shadowy figure in top hat. Through deliberate pacing, Kent routes us through the pulse of fundamental, pubescent fears. As children, many of us experienced fears such as the one Samuel finds in a simple pop-up book. Yet, The Babadook hardly stops there. This fear leaves the page and acquaints us (or reacquaints us) with a menagerie of psychological horrors.
Instead of the flash-and-trash 20-frames-per-second pacing often found in 21st century film, Kent and her actress Davis purposefully take us to a tender part of Amelia, still encased in grief and loss. The psychological pacing parallels this. With intelligent intent, the film’s mise en scène informs us as to the character’s psyches. In her dimly lit, cluttered home, Amelia’s journey of trauma grounds us in the experience of what its like losing a partner, and of the fear of a child coming up against the supernatural or inexplicable.
The elaborate sets enhance the visceral eeriness of loss; thinking yourself safe, when suddenly, via divorce or death, you find yourself alone at night in a large house that formerly offered security. A sanctuary morphs into a mausoleum, like an insomniac child imagines a dresser morphing into a monster. The muted scare tactics ofBabadook are authentically frightening because the horror is relatable. For a millisecond, your imagination dances with unconscious archetypal fears.
The film abounds with deliberateness: articles of clothing look like the Babadook, the feminine is portrayed in pinks and blacks and, as the horror, unravels, the visual tones darken and engulf. Even Amelia’s sweater blackens in the middle of the night.
Redemption is found in the gift of endurance and feminine pragmatism. Rather than attempting to dispatch a monolithic demon, simply feed it, pacify it, put it in the basement and hope for the best.
*This review was done in collaboration with Aja Eaker.