Horror movies are almost invariably funny. Until they’re not. There’s a good reason that, to cineastes and armchair moviegoers alike, Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” have remained in the horror canon, the discourse — the millennial attention span — for this long. And that reason is the same reason why the tits-every-two-scenes “Halloween” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchises loop without end on cable, as if shown by sheer contractual obligation and not in any remote effort to, you know, scare. And the reason is this: Good horror movies make you look inward, in the mirror, wondering, “What if I, rather than some monster, could be breathing behind that chestnut door”? Rookie director Jennifer Kent splashes big and dark in her debut, “The Babadook,” which is not only among the best pictures of 2014, but one that’ll surely secure her seat at the not-big table of Aughtie indie filmmakers to watch.
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By all accounts in the first half-hour of this 90-minute horror pic, this is less a horror pic, more a drama bleeding into comedy. Kent is in no rush to force-feed us obvious narrative omens, ones that lead to death knells of characters we (probably) couldn’t care less about. She stays local, opting for the brain-space of the mother Amelia (played sleeplessly by Essie Davis, TV’s “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) whose seven-year-old son Samuel (played with brilliance by newcomer Noah Wiseman) redefines what it means to “have it rough” as a widowed mother (the father died on the car ride to the ER, survived by the pregnant Amelia carrying their son). He acts out at school, has no friends, obsesses over DIY magic kits and, most importantly, drives his mother mad, whose blondish hair grows whiter, thinner, her forehead more wrinkly — parenting taking its toll, and fast.
This well-directed dramedy then inhales darker fumes. One night while Samuel demands his mother read him to sleep, she grabs an unfamiliar, ancient-looking red book titled “Mister Babadook.” The black-and-white words and illustrations quickly signify that Mom definitely made the wrong choice. Uttering the rhyming pages aloud, like, “You start to change when I get in / The Babadook growing under your skin … ,” Amelia has summoned something inhuman. What follows is sort of what you’d expect: Samuel claims to have had conversations with Mister B, bizarre noises at night, a knowing dog. But Kent only flirts with these tired exercises to unpack further what becomes increasingly unclear: Does Amelia’s flagging disposition make her so less a credible, protagonistic character that we may have to entertain less linear alternatives?
The best monster movies have none. Jack Torrence in “The Shining” saw weird stuff, but his reliability as our guide was always moot, his psyche unfamiliar with emotional equilibrium. The monster rested inside Torrence, hungry to disrupt yet smart enough to be patient. Ultimately, this is what we find in Amelia, a woman whose eyes avert so incessantly to her wild child that she cannot see, or acknowledge as real, the terror before her, inside her.
Make no mistake, “The Babadook” can be most easily shelved as a cheap, albeit clever allegory to motherhood. And your point? If anything, this speaks to the film’s gilded strength: its inherent femaleness. Kent uses old tricks, yes, but eschews the shitty ones, like the vapid talking pair of breasts or the pitiable mother or the bitchy bitch. Her gender-neutral, egalitarian approach works because nobody is your friend, everyone has demons and Mister Babadook is inarguably haunting with his cutlery fingers and black lips.
The finest scene happens when, after a couple failed attempts to destroy the book, it appears magically on the doorstep after a doorbell ring. Amelia tentatively totes it onto her kitchen table, opening it with glacial care. The images shown within this revised edition of the book could be the scariest minute of filmmaking in recent memory. No editing gimmicks, no athletic lensing, just a book and nothing else. The film itself feels like this.