Thursday, November 30, 2017

We Agree: The Babadook

2014, d. Jennifer Kent (no relation) - TMN

As David writes at the start of his 31 Days of Horror (you really need a "31 days" tag for that Toasty!) each year "Kent is not that much of a horror fan".  It's true.  I don't hate it but I also don't really enjoy it.  Large parts of "horror" exist only to try and out gross-out the viewer, most other parts of horror exist to jump scare an audience through a series of convoluted or obvious set-ups (like action set-pieces, both of these are the horror set-pieces a film builds itself around).  In both cases story and character are largely dispensed with.  Rudimentary frameworks for gags and boos.  I find most horror off-putting or tedious.  The horror I like most is ones that are mythology heavy, crossing into fantasy/sci-fi conceits with the level of exploration.  The 80's were rife with these, where horror creatures became icons...Michael Meyers, Freddie, Jason, Alien, Gremlins, Ghoulies, C.H.U.D.s, Critters, Leprichauns, Poltergeists, Chucky dolls... too many franchises to count.  Even still most of the big franchises would offer only the smallest amount of mythos-building.  What the average fantasy or sci-fi story would do in one film, you're often lucky to get half that over the run of an entire series of a horror franchise.  So, because I get bored, or put-off, or generally feel unfulfilled by horror, I stay away from it.

There have been some horror movies in the past 20 or so years that I really liked.  Most of them have been very meta in nature, such as Cabin in the Woods or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.  Even Bride of Chucky which was mid-90's alongside Scream, Wes Craven's New Nightmare or Halloween H20...those are kind of my stand-out horror flicks.  They're the ones that look at the genre and say "well this is stupid, we know it's stupid, we're going to fully acknowledge how stupid it is, and we're going to scare/entertain the pants off you anyway".  I mean, the scares are fairly light in these kinds of meta flick, but they are entertaining.

Every now an then I'd get suckered into watching some "new, great thing" in horror only to find it direly like all the old, tired horror I've seen before.  I assume this is what people who get bored by action movies feel like every time someone tells them how great The Raid or John Wick or the latest Fast and Furious are and how they take things to another level.  The Babadook was my latest suckerpunch.

For starters, it stars the great Essie Davis (star of the wonderful Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries available on Netflix), second it's directed by a woman (with my surname no less) which usually infers a different viewpoint for a genre film (since they're so male-dominated), and third it's Australian, so perhaps the tropes of horror aren't the same Down Under.  Now that the Babadook has become a pop-culture icon (with all that Pennywise/Babadook slash fiction and meme-ery blossoming) , I figured it was time to watch.

And jeebus was I bored.  Davis plays a single mother with a child who, to put it lightly, is a handful.  But he's no more a handful than most kids out there, she's obviously been depressed for a long, long time and as such has been light on discipline with the boy (I don't mean punishment, I mean more in setting boundaries and holding him accountable to them).  As a parent I can attest how hard it is to be mindful of your kid all the time. Even with a dedicated partner in parenting it's still brutally taxing, so as a single mother battling depression it's got to be utterly crushing when your child refuses to easily cooperate.

It probably doesn't help that this mother character reads her child ghoulish tales at bedtime.  I'm not sure why she thinks this is a good idea.  Pulling an unfamiliar book off the shelf, a scratch-line-illustrated, black and white pop-up book called the Babadook, she reads it to the boy and sends him off to his restless, nightmare-filled slumber.  She doesn't sleep well either.  Soon the boy is seeing the Babadook everywhere, and her world starts to fall apart.  Is it the sleep deprivation or the depression, or is there really a mythical entity that's trying to get in?

This is a tedious movie, one which I really struggled to get the message of.  Yes, parenthood, especially single parenthood is hard...doing it while combating depression probably makes it so a hundred fold.  But what is the Babadook supposed to represent?  The personification of you "not being yourself"? The biggest failure of the film is to establish the Babadook's mythology.  The children's book is irritatingly opaque in its story to suggest anything about what its motivations are (it wants to take over people..."Let me in" it screams... or is it "Let me out"?  This movie didn't leave much of an impact). 

I left the Babadook, as I do with most horror, feeling unfulfilled.  Effective horror for me leaves me either entertained or contemplative, or both.  I like a romp of action-horror, or a strong metaphor (still need to do that Get Out review), or a rich mythology to process.  Like David, I found the boy to be more irritating than sympathetic.  Davis does an excellent job appearing beaten down by her depression and lack of sleep and general life situation, but the editing and camera techniques designed to sell it even further are distracting, sometimes looking like cheap television. 

When Davis' character is finally overcome by the Babadook,it doesn't feel right... it's too overt.  The film's riding on subtlety, so that when it finally cracks, and the monster reveals itself, it's too cartoony, too over-the-top.   The resolution is similarly pat in a way that feels like cheating.

I wished I liked it. I wanted to like it, but it just didn't click.