After watching Babadook (2014), I am thoroughly convinced that, from here on out, producers need to consign direction of horror films to the girls. They are so much better at it than those dullard boys. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is too good for genre fanboys, whose diet is commonly relegated to sophomoric cravings for trite-tasting tawdry titillation. Kent’s Babadook is for far more refined palates.
In the early days of cinema, when German Expressionism’s shadow still influenced Hollywood, the quality of horror films was such that when a studio assigned a director a horror film, it often meant his status had just been elevated several notches. Unfortunately, the boatload of hacks had their say over the years, dragging the genre to that proverbial barrel bottom. With few exceptions, horror has never recovered, and its wretched reputation today is wholly deserved. Mechanical plots, cardboard characters, blatant misogyny, moronic humor, and deafening assaults pass for imagination to a growing horror audience that has largely forgotten how to even watch a film.
The genre bucks forged an unspoken patriarchal set of genre rules, and it did not take long for the rot of banality to set in. For a brief period, it seemed as if it was on the shoulders of independent filmmakers to offer an alternative tonic. Within mere decades, however, the indies had largely succumbed to imitating the well-cashed trash of the studios, which begs the question: “What then is the point of independent film?” Why settle for a low-budget, generic product that offers the same ingredients as the name brand that preceded it? At least the name brand has a better-looking box and doesn’t cost any more than an indie festival ticket. Given the status and quality of independent filmmaking, Robert Downey Jr.’s recent dismissals and criticisms appear justified.
Yet, in her directorial debut, independent Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent evokes the childhood of cinema, via Georges Melies and Lotte Reiniger‘s 1926 cut-out animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed. In these films Kent locates a springboard with no preexisting rules of film and genre.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, widowed when her husband was killed in a traffic accident while taking his wife—in labor—to the hospital. Amelia’s son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), fancies himself a magician straight out of a Melies film. He is also a perennial misfit, and quite the handful. Samuel happens upon a pop-up book featuring the Babadook; a dark, shadowy figure in top hat. Through deliberate pacing, Kent routes us through the pulse of fundamental, pubescent fears. As children, many of us experienced fears such as the one Samuel finds in a simple pop-up book. Yet, The Babadook hardly stops there. This fear leaves the page and acquaints us (or reacquaints us) with a menagerie of psychological horrors.
Instead of the flash-and-trash 20-frames-per-second pacing often found in 21st century film, Kent and her actress Davis purposefully take us to a tender part of Amelia, still encased in grief and loss. The psychological pacing parallels this. With intelligent intent, the film’s mise en scène informs us as to the character’s psyches. In her dimly lit, cluttered home, Amelia’s journey of trauma grounds us in the experience of what its like losing a partner, and of the fear of a child coming up against the supernatural or inexplicable.
The elaborate sets enhance the visceral eeriness of loss; thinking yourself safe, when suddenly, via divorce or death, you find yourself alone at night in a large house that formerly offered security. A sanctuary morphs into a mausoleum, like an insomniac child imagines a dresser morphing into a monster. The muted scare tactics of Babadook are authentically frightening because the horror is relatable. For a millisecond, your imagination dances with unconscious archetypal fears.
The film abounds with deliberateness: articles of clothing look like the Babadook, the feminine is portrayed in pinks and blacks and, as the horror, unravels, the visual tones darken and engulf. Even Amelia’s sweater blackens in the middle of the night.
Redemption is found in the gift of endurance and feminine pragmatism. Rather than attempting to dispatch a monolithic demon, simply feed it, pacify it, put it in the basement and hope for the best.
*This review was done in collaboration with Aja Eaker.
4 thoughts on “THE BABADOOK (2014)”
Sexist remarks aside, this is a great review. I have been meaning to see this, and now regret not doing so when it was playing at nearby theatre. I suspect, however, like most psychological horror, a giant screen won’t be necessary for full effect. I’ll be seeking out a copy soon.
I’m curious, though, just what “feminine pragmatism” might be, particularly compared with the similarly nebulous (and perhaps hypothetical) “masculine pragmatism”. Perhaps just… pragmatism?
Right you are, in that what makes for the most haunting of cinematic experiences is never the size of a screen, but rather in delicious subtly. A psychological horror works when the viewers’ ability to immerse under the story line creates a kinesthetic empathy with the characters. In Babadook all aspects are present.
I feel the need to clarify based upon your comment, good Sir. You arise a good question that probably could have been explained with less-than clinical terminology. The second gunman on the grassy hill of the Babadook review, it was I who opined to Alfred regarding the use of feminine pragmatism. Perhaps my ramblings may elucidate the point:
Feminine pragmatism is practical magic; rather than running like a bimbo from every bump-in-the-night, our heroine of Babadook smartly wears not just flats, but orthotic nursing shoes. Is this lady going to slip and break her hip? Heck no.
Staying with the theme for a moment, and perhaps echoing Alfred, Babadook intrinsically and successfully portrays women as capable, complex yet uncomplicated, intelligent beings. Here, Amelia is presented as both elegant with simple beauty and brave–as in doing what she knows to do even while experiencing fear. Feminine pragmatism as a symbol is important psychically, as everyone has both masculine and feminine qualities. In film when the feminine is portrayed realistically (hair a mess, more sensible wardrobe selection, fried out after a mind-numbing day at a mind-numbing job) the aspects of the archetypal feminine within each individual is more accurately honored, thus, it becomes a more integrated film in which more people can relate. It is easier to believe the sack of clothes in the corner could be a man in the bedroom uninvited when matched with a thousand other details validating the sanity of the woman.
Feminine pragmatism traditionally is receptivity, protecting children, nurturing young, tending to the community and attuned to the collective needs. In this regard, gender pragmatism is the practical aspects assigned or endorsed in association to the identified gender. The same is true for the masculine in terms of pragmatism. Traditionally, masculine pragmatism refers to issues of power, control, boundaries, protection, and so forth. It goes without saying that a man can easily relate more to the traditional feminine qualities and some women align themselves much more with the masculine aspects more readily. In this film, however, we have the lead character juggling both acutely and under duress: her husband has died and left her to raise a spooky kid with a creepy obsession in a sketchy house with a noir-like surrealist surrounding world.
Speaking only from my own direct experience, when males are portrayed in movies as beefcakes full of machismo and short on conversation, I totally tune the hell out and start looking at my more enticing stack of library books. The more honest the portrayal of what it MEANS to be a female or a male within a specific context, when practicality is present, the more evocative emotionally and psychologically.
That is all, carry on, happy trails.
P.S. @ CaseX: Do we need to repeat Kindergarten? No name calling. Be kind, rewind.
You really need to fire this Eaker guy. What a pompous ass.
If I did repeat kindergarten, I’m sure I’d pass Alfred along the way. Sorry, but the guy is a world class douche. Plain and simple.