Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie Review: The Babadook

There are a few reasons why I don't see a lot of horror films anymore: my husband is not a fan of the genre, and since I see most movies at home these days that means he and I have to agree on what to watch; and I feel that, in general, there are few really good horror films out lately.

Thankfully, both those reasons could easily be set aside when I took a day to myself over the weekend to go see The Babadook, something The Mary Sue called "The Best Horror Film of 2014." I generally agree with The Mary Sue -- not always, but mostly -- so I trusted them.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Now, let's be clear from the get-go: There isn't a whole lot of originality in The Babadook. Some tried-and-true horror tropes are trotted out (cockroaches to symbolize the mother's increasing madness; disbelieving police; a concerned neighbor; a creepy phone call), but they are put to excellent use. There are a few well-placed and well-executed jump scares, suspense to spare, and enough disturbing imagery to make you uncomfortable but not enough to seem graphic. The story, too, is unoriginal: a paranormal explanation for a mother's grief and anxieties (see: Rosemary's Baby; The Others). But, again, this one is done really, really well. 

Most of why the movie works is the Hitchcokian style in which it is shot. There are a lot of pauses, a lot of close-ups, a lot of still shots of doors, walls, the kitchen, that, in context, go from creepy to sinister. The story is slow to unfold, and the camera work reflects that. For the first 3/4 of the film I thought to myself, "I bet this is gonna get really weird soon," and I was right. Like Rosemary's Baby it lulls you into a false sense of security; unlike Rosemary's Baby the climax is violent and terrible to watch. 

But the bulk of the reason why I like this movie so much is because it felt deeply personal for me. The story of The Babadook goes like this: Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow still deeply in mourning for her husband even though he's been dead for nearly seven years. She is raising their son Sammy (Noah Wiseman) alone. Sammy's dad died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, therefore Sammy's existence is a daily reminder of Amelia's loss and his birthday is his father's yahrzeit. Because Amelia has never dealt with her grief or put her mourning behind her Sammy is an extremely anxious 6-year old. When the movie opens, Amelia is called at her job as a nursing home caretaker to come pick Sammy up from school, where they offer to provide Sammy with a private monitor to take care of him. Amelia does not want Sammy singled out, so she pulls him out of school. Now she's home all day with her anxious son. All by herself. Sammy is obsessed with going into the basement, where Amelia still keeps her dead husband's things. Amelia tries to keep him out with varying degrees of success.

One night, Sammy chooses a bedtime book to read, called The Babadook. Neither he nor Amelia have any idea where the book came from. It just sort of appeared in Sammy's room. They read the book (always a good idea to read a mysterious book right before your child's bedtime), which warns that the Babadook shows up with a friendly face that it tears away to reveal a monster who will make you wish you were dead. (Side note: I would have loved that book as a child.) Amelia sets the book aside, but now Sammy is obsessed. His anxiety increases exponentially until he and Amelia manage to alienate the only friends they have left. As Sammy's fears grow, Amelia's patience drains until she lashes out at her son.

"Where did this scary-looking book
come from? You don't know? OK, let's
read it at bedtime."

You can maybe see where this is going.

Amelia tears up the book and throws it out; the book returns to her doorstep, pages stuck back together, and with new wording that warns that the more you deny the Babadook, the stronger it gets, with new graphic images of Amelia killing their dog, her son, and herself. Amelia burns the book then goes ahead and loses what little sanity she had left. By now even she can "see" the Babadook until, one night, it takes over her body. And that's when the movie stops being calm and starts getting really, really fucked up.

The reason this resonates with me personally is because I suffered post-partum depression (PPD) after the births of both my children. I had some thoughts about them and myself I knew at the time were not rational but still couldn't shake. I watched myself as if from the outside, appalled at my lack of gentleness or compassion for my own babies, but helpless to do anything about it. Despite being surrounded by loved ones I felt isolated and cripplingly lonely. Thankfully, my husband recognized me as not being myself and made me get the professional help I desperately needed, but even that was an enormous amount of work: mental health is not a priority in this country, and many of the doctors I called didn't take insurance and we couldn't afford to pay out of pocket for therapy. There was also the burden of what to do with my baby while I went to therapy; I didn't have friends or family who were home during the day to watch them. I finally found a doctor through a university program who would take insurance and I took my baby with me to my sessions. It wasn't ideal, but it was a start, and I got put right away on medications I desperately needed to help balance me out and get me through the worst of it.

Four years of therapy and many anti-depressants later, I can honestly say that I'm not cured but I'm better.

But Amelia, in the movie, needs help and, by turns, can't or won't get it. In one scene a co-worker tells her, "It's ok to not be fine." She's so busy holding herself together by threads, though, that she refuses to admit that the fragile reality she's built for herself and Sammy is already starting to unravel. By the time she figures it out it's far too late.

"I do not like the new edits to this book."

Watching Amelia deal with all of this hit the nail on the head for me. That is exactly what PPD felt like as I was living through it: like something evil had taken over my body and was going to hurt my children if I didn't figure out how to make it go away. The Babadook looks like what I felt like, dark, evil, foreign, and utterly my own fault for not doing more to keep it from taking over. Amelia goes through a vicious cycle of anger, guilt and bitterness that I know all too well.

Essie Davis does an amazing job of portraying Amelia's struggles. Even her voice changes from the beginning of the movie to the end. And Noah Wiseman is absolutely adorable as little Sammy, with his wide eyes and his floppy hair and his earnest smile. My own oldest child, the Juban Princeling, is the same age, so at times I physically cringed while watching Amelia yell at Sammy things I've though in my head, and at watching Sammy wince away from his own mother the way the Princeling does when I snap at him. (FYI, I always apologize.)

So, yeah, The Babadook is one of the few horror movies I've seen lately, and the first horror film I've seen in theaters in a very long time. But it was totally worth it. I highly recommend.

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