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The Babadook

Is it just me or is every single movie hitting theaters between now and New Year’s? Sure feels that way, especially here in Portland. I know that January is typically a dumping ground for the worst films because they get swept under so many awards favorites and festival darlings left over from the December before, but sweet baby Jesus! How bad could next January possibly be if we need so much awards bait playing so late in the year?!

Whatever the reason, it’s crunch time for cinephiles. And here at Movie Curiosities, we’re starting with an instant favorite among fans and critics alike that’s somehow taken its sweet-ass time getting here to Portland.

The Babadook opens with Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who’s been having a very difficult time of late. The good news is that her son (Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman) is just about to turn seven years old. The bad news is that it’s also just about seven years since her husband died. He was killed in a car crash, you see, while driving Amelia to the hospital as she was going into labor.

The loss of his father affects Sam in some prominent ways. Most notably, Sam thinks of himself as the man of the house, and therefore takes it upon himself to be strong and defend his mother at all costs. It’s a responsibility he takes far too seriously. As an example, it means that he’s so extremely touchy about his father’s death and his mom’s single status that he’s quick to lash out against anyone who makes fun of him or his parents. For another thing, Sam makes a hobby out of creating homemade crossbows, catapults, and other weapons from scrap. To defend against invaders and threats, you see. Naturally, it results in more property damage than anything else.

It’s not that Sam is malicious in any way. He honestly doesn’t mean any harm to anyone, and there’s no denying that his tinkering abilities are thoroughly impressive. Still, he has a rampant imagination dominated by monsters, he pressures himself to be strong and well-armed in his dad’s absence, and he knows that anyone could die unexpectedly at any time like his father did. Put all of that in a typically hyperactive six-year-old boy and it’s easy to see why people are uncomfortable (if not outright terrified) to be around him.

Another big problem is that because Sam is so protective of his mother, he has to be around her constantly. Couple that with everything I’ve already said about Sam and you might imagine how much of a handful he gets to be. Amelia barely gets any sleep, she hasn’t even tried dating in ages, her work schedule is constantly interrupted by Sam and his various problems, and she has to go through all of it alone because of course no one else has the time to bother with her crap. Hell, Amelia is only barely able to keep up with her own crap.

We can see for ourselves that Amelia is only barely hanging on by a thread when the film starts. And then Sam discovers a strange pop-up book on his shelf called “The Babadook.” The book has no listed author and neither of them have ever seen it before. Soon afterwards, Sam starts to claim that he really has seen the titular Babadook bogeyman, though of course no one believes him. Amelia gradually starts to believe Sam, as a whole bunch of crazy stuff starts happening and there’s no other explanation.

Or is there?

Most of the strange happenings in this film could either be blamed on paranormal shenanigans or on the characters themselves. After all, Sam has always been a kid with an overactive imagination and a Napoleon complex, and acting out to get attention would be perfectly in character for him. As for Amelia, she’s been stressed and exhausted for weeks on end, to say nothing of the grief she feels on the anniversary of her husband’s death. If she had finally snapped and let out all the anger she’s been forced to keep inside, that might explain a lot.

This brings me to the nature of the film’s horror aspect. First of all, this was an independent film with a relatively scant budget of $2 million. Though there are some special effects, the vast majority of the scares depend on the cast and the direction. And they pull it off gloriously. I cannot praise Davis and Wiseman enough for playing these characters and their developments in such a superb way. These characters deal with their emotional baggage in a way that’s compelling to watch without ever getting annoying or unsympathetic, which is an especially crucial point with regards to Samuel. It’s so easy to fear for these characters and hope that they’ll make it out alive. Even when these characters (possibly) went insane, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them with the hope that they’d snap out of it before anyone got hurt. And yes, they had me seriously terrified that someone was going to get hurt.

Then we have the direction, which is absolutely ingenious in all the ways it creates terror on a shoestring budget. The sound design, as an example, is loaded with scenes in which ambient noise can be heard just before it suddenly cuts out, suggesting the presence or absence of something wicked. We also have the set design, which is filled with muted blues and greys to create a foreboding atmosphere. And of course the use of shadows is impeccable.

Unfortunately, that creativity can only go so far. Everything was going great right up until the climax, when I could tell that the filmmakers had run out of money. It’s obvious that first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent had a reach that just barely exceeded her grasp, and it failed her at the very peak of the climax. Such a pivotal moment ruined because the budget couldn’t allow the level of spectacle that the scene demanded. This means that the climax (and therefore the entire plot) is resolved in a way that feels rushed, under-explained, and just plain unsatisfactory. So many questions were left unanswered that the resolution verges on a deus ex machina and the denouement feels unearned.

It’s a damn shame that The Babadook trips up in the last five minutes, because the rest of this 90-minute film is fantastic. The characters’ family drama is presented incredibly well, and it adds a neat spin to the classic “monster under the bed” premise. It’s really the actors and the director who do such a phenomenal job milking scares from a minimal budget. There are plenty of Hollywood filmmakers who would do wise to take notes watching this film, and someone needs to give Jennifer Kent an eight-figure budget to play with ASAP.

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