There is a gulf between genuinely chilling and mildly disconcerting horror cinema isn’t there? The current penchant for the jumpy, harshly cut and deafening fears of Insidious, The Conjuring or its bastardised sister Annabelle leave me parched in a sea of tedious techniques, yearning for a full draught of the genuinely spooky fare which the Spanish and to a lesser extent the Japanese used to excel in. Now me and a certain Mr. Kermode frequently fall out over some of his more ridiculous opinions (his championing of the exerable Twilight films is simply unforgiveable, they are terrible films both technically and thematically) but I still tend to trust his judgment on some fronts, as he quite astutely made the case when podcast reviewing the anticipated new antipodean horror The Babadook that real, effective horror trades in the uncanny and the supernatural with a grounding in reality, with characters we empathize and identify with, and don’t just resort to the lowest common denominator jump scares that any 5 year old with a video camera could execute. I first became aware of this film around a year ago when it started terrifying festival audiences and I’ve been steadily charting its frightening tendrils reaching across the globe, until it finally made ground in the UK just time for All Hallows Eve, riding on a crest of critical celebration. Some have compared it with the little known 1980’s frightmare Paperhouse given the picture book symmetry and story of a young child lost in an increasingly dangerous world of fantasy and adult superstitions, so I was very much looking forward to this film as another potential gift of the Autumn season, as I ambled through the November chill for a Sunday Cineworld matinee alongside the media mauling Nightcrawler.
Strained and stretched single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is almost at the end of her increasingly fraught mental tether. Raising her poorly behaved young son Samuel (Noah Weiseman) alone after his father was killed in a car accident she is struggling to maintain her modest nursing job and keep food on the table, her only source of assistance being her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) whom harbors a barely concealed enmity toward her nephews increasingly erratic conduct. To compound the stress Amelia’s grasp of motherhood may have been tainted by the fact that their absent father was killed on the very day that Samuel was delivered, prompting her to not entertain such childrearing concerns as birthday parties, anniversaries or associated celebrations, a dictate which further isolates her increasingly fraught child from her and his peers. Attempting to forge some lasting relationship with the child she alights upon a mysterious story book found hidden in the house called The Babadook, a leering charcoal tainted tale of a terrifying figure which frightens young families, igniting in Samuel the urge to see and hear the spectral figure lurking in every shadowy corner of the house. As the story develops and Samuel’s demeanor further deteriorates one has to wonder that maybe, just perhaps his menacing hallucinations aren’t completely unfounded….
Debut writer & director Jennifer Kent has selected her ingredients wisely in order to percolate this supernatural stew, with flavours of Lynch at his skin-crawlingly creepiest, of Polanski’s Repulsion and more than a sprigot of Kubrick’s The Shining mulched into the mix, but the final dish is a rather thin and unnourishing gruel, and I’m sorry to say I was more than a little underwhelmed. It’s another fall at the hurdle of expectations, it is certainly not a bad film with a fair share of genuinely chilling moments, but they never coalesce into anything coherent or controlled, as the plot strands and intensity unravelling in the films final conflict. Kent erects a very unsettling Fredudian undercurrent which lurks beneath the gray and pallid color palette, it’s drained emulsion the shade of blood curdling in frosty cheeks, but as the plot well, loses the plot The Babadook defiantly fails to navigate such fertile territory, lurching from one scene to the next without fully twitching on the chillblades. If you are so inclined here is the 10 minute short that Jennifer Kent made before securing financing, may will give you a flavor of proceedings.
I’ll concede that child actor Weismen somehow manages to transform his original irritating behavior as posterboy for enforced sterilization into a google eyed empathy as we realize that it’s the more corporeal elements in the house which offers the real threat to his body and soul, while Davis thrashes around in a misguidedly directed shift from exhaustion to sanity shattering anger, a fractured performance hastily glued together from an incomplete selection of fragments. The film does boast a masterful deployment of sound – always a central emphasis in any horror movie worth its reputation – shifting from chittering spectral gibberish to abrupt guillotine of total silence to enhance attention on the imagery, building crescendos in certain sections which are dissipated by some rather clichéd and badly worn genre contortions. In the final ledger I think The Babadook is filed under the ‘ambitious and promising failure’ section, perhaps bruised by the unreasonable lofty expectations on my part. On the other hand Kim Newman, one of the worlds foremost scholars on horror and genre cinema has proclaimed The Babadook as a masterpiece of its type, and although I’m inclined to disagree you may find more permanent chills in leafing through it’s faintly petrifying pages;