Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Film Review: The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook (Review)
Australia/2014
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: No

 "...some issues with the characters and writing, but it's generally a well thought-out horror film..."

Single-mother Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to protect her annoying son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), after she reads him a book called Mister Babadook...

The Babadook follows Amelia and her son Sam. From the beginning, Amelia is clearly depressed and shares a bittersweet relationship with her son -- you can clearly see she's detached. Sam, on the other hand, misbehaves often. (i.e. He's obnoxious.) After Amelia reads Mister Babadook, she begins to believe she's being targeted by the ominous entity. So, she spends restless night trying to convince herself it's not real while trying to tolerate and protect Sam. The story is fairly straightforward -- it has deep themes, but they're very blatant. The ending of the film is decent. On one hand, it feels underwhelming; on the other, it's interesting, for lack of a better term.

The first issue with The Babadook is its characters. I know I'm not supposed to love every character, but Sam was unbelievably obnoxious. This kid brings weapons to school, throws firecrackers at his dog and mother, he incessantly whines, he pushes people out of tree houses... The list goes on and on, and that's only in the first act! At one point, I felt like throwing myself out my window to get away from him. It's not only Sam, either, practically every child in this film is unusually obnoxious. I mean, children are great, but this film makes you want to stay miles away from any kid.

The second issue is the lack of subtlety. This is more of a minor issue. For me, good psychological horror comes from deep and relatable characters, personal themes, and mystery. In this case, this film is very blatant from the start. You won't question whether the Babadook entity is real or not, you know from the very first scene: this is a psychological horror film. In turn, this makes the film more predictable and less effective. For example, a film like The Exorcist is excellent because it blurs the lines between psychological and supernatural; it plays with the idea that it's all in the head, it makes you question everything -- that's excellent psychological horror. In this case, you know it's psychological horror because everything is so blatant -- there is no subtlety.

The film isn't a complete loss, though. After the rough first act, The Babadook gets on its feet and finally starts running. The film starts to deliver its psychological scares -- an ominous entity, grizzly hallucinations, and eerie sounds. There are only a few jump-scares, but they're effective. The Babadook is creepy and unique, his sparse attendance creates suspense on its own. The popup book is great, too. I love the use of sound in horror, so I really appreciate that aspect in The Babadook. The dreadful croaking, the animal-like caws, and the distorted voices were perfect. Although I wish it were more subtle, I did enjoy the focus on psychological themes, too. The film's effective depictions of depression and grief amplify the horror a bit. It also makes the film more atmospheric. It didn't really feel ominous or terrifying, though. It felt more drab and, well, depressing.

Essie Davis is a wonderful leading lady. She delivers a powerful performance with a fantastic transformation. As annoying as his character may be, Noah Wiseman also does well. The film is shot
well; the hallucinations are especially good. The music is great, matches the mood perfectly. The use of sound to create horror other than jump-scares is appreciated -- I love this aspect of the film. Writer and director Jennifer Kent does well with her direction as she creates a suspenseful and effective horror film. However, the writing does lack some much needed subtlety and it tends to play it safe. (i.e. It's predictable and tends to tread familiar territory.)

Overall, The Babadook is a very good psychological horror film. There are some issues with the characters and writing, but it's generally a well thought-out horror film -- something we don't see often nowadays. If you like psychological horror films with deep themes, even if they lack subtlety, then this is well worth the 90-minute investment. Just a final note: considering some of the other reviews floating around, I'd recommend shortening your expectations just to be safe -- hype can be terrible for a film. Although I liked the film, this isn't the second-coming for the horror genre.

Score: 7/10
Parental Guide: Some strong violence and gore.

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