Tuesday, 26 August 2014

[Frightfest - Review] The Babadook

Stars; Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney
Director; Jennifer Kent
Writer; Jennifer Kent
Running Time; 95 mins

Single mum Amelia is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband at the same time battling her son's obsession with monsters. Strange spooky occurrences start to take place and Amelia finds herself questioning whether she is on the verge of a breakdown or if there really is a malign presence stalking her and her son.

If The Gruffalo ever had an evil twin brother it would most likely be The Babadook since the two are similar yet so contrastingly on the opposite sides of the storytelling fence. Made on a budget of $2million (of which $30,000 was crowdfunded through Kickstarter) this chilling monster story invoking themes of madness using a children's book as the catalyst taps into the viewer's deepest darkest childhood fears and adult worries draws them to the surface and proceeds to smack said viewer firmly across the cheeks. The Babadook, Australian film maker Jennifer Kent's feature film debut, has set the bar to a high standard at this year's Film4 Frightfest.

The success behind The Babadook lies in its simplicity. The absence of big budget CGI, grand locations or even bankable star names (although fans of The Matrix films might recognise Essie Davis aka Maggie) make way for more effective storytelling. Writer and director Jennifer Kent replaces these with focus on characters, creating a real sense of place with the suburban backdrop of Adelaide, and probably the most terrifying children's pop-up book ever devised.

Throughout Kent's tale of malign monstrous spirits lurking in the closet and spelling out in macabre illustrations what horrors they intend to inflict, there is one prevalent theme; descending madness with very authentic undertones of mental health concerns such as schizophrenia and depression. In bringing this across (coincidentally in similar vein to Simon Horrocks' Third Contact) Kent spends much of the film keeping the audience guessing as to whether or not The Babadook is real with incredible performances from her lead players. Essie Davis as troubled mum Amelia turns in a very moving and visceral performance, engaging and watchable throughout. Increasingly losing her grip on reality Amelia's turn from a mum at the end of her tether to something more deadly is truly unnerving to watch and shows in Davis an ability to bring many dimensions to what is a very real character. Noah Wiseman seems to have revelled in his turn as Samuel and Kent manages to draw an incredibly multi-faceted performance from this charming little actor. Wiseman goes from brattish and infuriating (breaking windows and taking weapons to school) to charming and adorable. One's heart can't help but melt when Samuel expresses his need to protect his mother stemming from the fear of having lost one parent already and not wishing to lose another, along with the petrification that overcomes him when facing his monster.

In creating the Babadook, Kent has successfully drawn upon everyone's most deep rooted childhood fears of monsters hiding in the cupboard. What makes this even more eerie is Kent's clever creation of a malign fairy tale and the  juxtaposition of the story of a fearsome monster told through the innocence of a child's pop-up book. The opening line "If it's in a word or in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook. A rumbling sound then three hard knocks, ba ba badook dook dook," is sure to send shivers up a spine or two and is reminiscent of many a limerick that have featured in classic horrors such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman. The book has a sinister character all of its own and in the Babadook itself, Kent has created a monster that is simple yet utterly terrifying more so than the most sophisticated CGI creation. The creature's look, all in black with a top hat and razor sharp teeth is truly sinister even to many a veteran horror viewer. Excellent camera work and conservative use of lighting all contained within Amelia and Samuel's seemingly cramped and dilapidated home add to creating a real sense of atmosphere.

The Babadook is a truly gripping and unnerving story which terrifies on two levels; the possibility the monster is real and that Amelia and Sam could be fighting a losing battle or that it is a figment of their imagination causing them to spiral hopelessly into a delusion that threatens both their physical and mental safety. A chilling story and creature created through the innocence of a child's book, with incredible performances and a real spooky atmosphere all make this a thoroughly enjoyable but nerve-wrecking watch.


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