Wednesday, December 17, 2014
THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
In THE BABADOOK Amelia (Essie Davis) still dreams of the traumatic day almost seven years earlier when she lost her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear). The car accident that killed him happened as he was driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital. Amelia emerged physically unharmed and gave birth to their son, but the loss of Oskar continues to haunt her. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is approaching his seventh birthday, is keenly aware of the circumstances of his arrival and the gaping absence at home, although his fears are manifested in obsessions with monsters and magic.
Samuel frequently awakens his mother in the middle of the night to check for creatures possibly lurking in the closet and under the bed. Often he winds up sleeping with her. He also makes weapons to fight the monsters and exhibits violent tendencies. Amelia is exhausted and at wit’s end with how to handle him. The situation gets worse when she reads him a book called MISTER BABADOOK that he pulls from the shelf. The mysterious book about a monster one can’t be rid of triggers a new round of nightmares and daytime anxiety in Samuel. Amelia has already had to remove him from school for his misbehavior. Her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) will no longer watch him or come over to Amelia’s home because of how he acts out. Amelia even begins to believe she hears and sees the Babadook stalking them.
The Babadook is more of a symbolic threat or a psychological rupture made tangible than the sort of monster that skulks around horror films dispatching with vulnerable people. In that regard THE BABADOOK loses some of its ability to frighten, but writer-director Jennifer Kent maintains a creepy environment that reflects the emotional disturbance in the two-person family. Amelia’s house features cold lighting and a gray interior, as if all of the color was drained from her existence when her husband died. Parents may describe children as the lights of the lives, but Samuel is nothing of the sort. He’s a terror to his mother and a searing reminder of the grief that accompanied him into the world.
Davis would likely be hailed more widely for her performance if it were contained in a traditional drama, but the psychological horror genre allows her a broader spectrum for depicting grief and maternal fatigue. The strain of tending to a difficult child for whom she has no solution is etched into her face. Davis gives Amelia the appearance and attitude of someone who has resigned herself to never escaping the black pit into which she’s fallen. She can sense the pity others have for her and the dislike that often accompanies it because Amelia and her son make people uncomfortable.
Kent writes Samuel not as a bad seed but rather as an angry and scared boy who has been raised with the perception that he is being held responsible for his father’s death. Wiseman excels at playing an unsettling kid who is hard for a mother to love because his defenselessness is so readily apparent underneath his lashing out.