APRIL 12, 2015
I forget if I've mentioned it here, but right around the time HMAD was ending the daily routine, I started working part time for Netflix as one of their taggers, which means I watch movies and enter in all the data that helps them make their recommendations ("if you like Exorcist, you may also like Omen" - they know that because someone before my time had probably noted that they were both 70s horror movies with religious overtones and creepy kids, and the computer matched them, same as an online dating service or whatever). On one hand this is great, because not only is it extra money (basically, daycare gets paid for), but also if I see something terrible like Wrong Turn 6 at Screamfest, and say "You'd have to pay me to watch that again!", it actually happens. On the other hand, that means I'm watching movies the totally wrong way, counting up the F-bombs to determine its profanity tag, keeping an eye out for license plates in case no one actually says what city/state they're in (the location gets tagged), and other things that distract away from how a horror movie like The Babadook works on a normal audience.
Which is to say, when I watched it a while back for tagging, I wasn't as impressed as many of my peers. Even factoring in my usual "I don't scare easily" problem for a movie that was mainly winning people over for being scary, I just didn't get why it was touching such a nerve - the recent The Canal was far more effective to me, also offering a supernatural/psychological blend for a tale about a single parent becoming unraveled. It wasn't until this week, when I watched it again the RIGHT way (i.e. not concerning myself with things like "Does that count as innuendo?" regarding sex), that I started to get why the likes of William Friedkin sung the film's praises during its theatrical run earlier this year. Of course, by now some of the power had been diluted because it was a 2nd viewing, but I was able to at least PRETEND I was seeing it with fresh eyes, and thus I'm happy to report that this is indeed one of the year's better fright flicks (though I still like The Canal better!).
Its first hour and change works best, which is kind of remarkable because it only takes about 10 minutes for you to fully understand the gravity of the situation. Our heroine is Amelia, a very tired/frustrated single mom played by Essie Davis, and her kid is... different, but not in the usual horror movie way - to put it gently, he's a giant pain in the ass. Eventually we learn that his father/her husband was killed in a car crash on the way to the hospital to give birth, which has understandably left his mom with a bit of resentment that she tries to bottle up and choke down, and also left HIM without a father figure. As I'm learning now with my own son, there are things that I can do my wife can't, and vice versa (not limited to breastfeeding), and while obviously many single parents have produced amazing, normal kids, I'm pretty sure mine will be left a bit messed up without both of us. We each have our pros and cons, so we know who the go-to person is for certain things, a system that will (hopefully!) ensure he turns out OK. Not that he will turn out like this friggin nightmare of a kid either way, but I certainly get the idea now better than I would have a year or two ago. Sometimes I have to watch him solo for the bulk of a day, and while it's fine for that rare occasion, if I had to do it every day, without her much better skill at putting him to sleep, getting him to eat solid foods... yikes.
Now, to be fair he's not like Problem Child or whatever - he's just hyperactive and maybe a little bit "on the spectrum" as they say ("he speaks his mind", his mother often says, in response to the way he can casually offer exposition to complete strangers - a nice shorthand to deliver the backstory, really) which of course makes everyone think he's weird. He's obsessed with magicians, seemingly has no friends, and makes homemade weapons to protect him and his mum against the monsters he's convinced are after them. This fear intensifies after he reads "The Babadook", a terrifying bedtime story (a pop up book to be exact) that he finds in his collection one night - neither of them recognize it but the mom goes ahead and reads it anyway. Side note here - the movie frequently employes jump cuts, and the one that transitions between his unknowing mom reading him this awful thing and him sobbing his eyes out as she tries to comfort him with a traditionally calming bedtime story is amazing. From then on they are terrorized by the titular monster, who she believes is just his overactive imagination at work, but eventually she starts seeing things too...
And this is where the movie starts falling apart a bit for me. Her growing belief in the Babadook (which, of course, might be the manifestation of her own frustration) plays great, but the climax itself goes on forever, and it's simply not as interesting to me as the numerous scenes of the kid driving his mother to the breaking point, watching her unravel more and more as his behavior gets increasingly obnoxious. Her sister starts to distance herself, she screws up at work, etc, and the kid just WON'T. SHUT. UP. Her lack of sleep becomes an ongoing plot concern (Ms. Davis sells it beautifully; one quick look at her face tells you everything in any given scene), with several scenes where she just finally gets to lay down and the kid instantly starts screaming about something again. I'm not sure if non parents can appreciate how great these scenes are - it's rare I identify so well with someone in a horror movie as I did at these points, as I myself have literally gone to bed only to have to get back up within a second or two (not an exaggeration) because the sleeping baby had already woken up. You might be so exhausted that you can barely move, and yet you HAVE TO GET BACK UP. And he's just crying for some milk; this kid's problems clearly can't be solved so quickly or even temporarily. Writer/director Jennifer Kent does a fantastic job of letting us feel her exhaustion, loneliness, etc - while still delivering a few scares and other traditional horror elements.
But like I said, the climax isn't quite as effective. Oddly, it feels a bit like Poltergeist II's, of all goddamn things, with a parent being possessed by SOMETHING and being the tormentor before resuming their role as protector to a justifiably confused child. I don't care how good it is before then, if you remind your audience of Poltergeist II, you're doing yourself a disservice (unless it's specifically recalling Kane, then it's OK). Plus, unless Kent is cheating visually, we have our answer as to whether or not the Babadook is real, so part of the fun is deflated - the question of whether or not it was just the kid's imagination and/or the mom having a mental break (or both) was the selling point, and getting the answer is bound to be disappointing on some level. I don't know if never coming down hard either way would be any better, but again, The Canal did similar things and its climax is incredible. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't "ruin the film" or anything drastic like that, but if I felt stronger about the film's last 15-20 minutes I'd probably be as vocally supportive as Friedkin (I forget the exact quote but I think he basically said it was the scariest movie since Exorcist).
Another issue I had requires a SPOILER, so skip this paragraph if you don't want anything else revealed. For those still here, I think Kent needlessly obscures the fact that the mom was the one who wrote the damn book. At least, I THINK it's supposed to be a fact; if it's up to interpretation then our other option is that a random book appeared in their house before any sort of entity had been unleashed, which suggests... home invasion? No, it has to be that she wrote it, but there are only two signs pointing to that. One isn't TOO bad; she quickly reveals that she used to write children's books, but the subject is changed instantly, so the audience can't really let its implication sink in, if they pick up on it at all. The other is even more vague - at one point she has dirty smudged ink hands, and we later see that the book has had pages added to it. Putting those two things together is not something the average audience member will do on first viewing unless they are specifically looking for clues that the mother wrote it. So combined, it's not a very effective means of conveying what's kind of an important plot point. Unless, again, Kent didn't want that spelled out or didn't even want it clarified one way or the other, but if that is the case I can't really see what the motivation for that would be, beyond needless vaguery for the sake of vaguery. If you have theories, I'd love to hear them - the movie certainly has elements that are up for debate, but this particular one doesn't seem like it should be one of them, since you're left with the question of "If not her, who did?", which for a relatively grounded movie is something that demands an answer. It's not like this is a David Lynch movie.
If you're looking for any further insight from Kent, the vast collection of bonus features won't be of much help. Kent provides no commentary or anything of the sort; she appears in the hour-long collection of interviews but they're taken from the promotional EPK and thus are not very revelatory (and yes, she even says "I want the audience to decide those things for themselves"). These interviews are not broken up with chapters either, so if you want to skip past someone like the coworker who appears in like two scenes to get to Kent (who is smack dab in the middle of the sequence) you just have to fast forward them - kind of obnoxious considering the length. Since EPKs are largely worthless once you've seen the movie anyway, feel free to skip them (and the "behind the scenes", which is just the B-roll) and focus on the others, in particular the look at the set design (I was kind of amazed to discover the house was a set) and the creation of the pop up book. I've watched a million bonus features on DVDs/Blus for the past nearly 20 years (damn) and this is the first time I've seen one explaining how a pop up book is put together. The original short, Monster, is also included and is worth a look at what boils down to the movie's entire plot sped up into ten minutes. Some deleted scenes are also included; nothing particularly useful (and no explanation for their excision is offered), but I did like the bit with the neighbor - Davis once again effortlessly sells this woman's total exhaustion with just a few looks and words, and the neighbor lady's response to her is not only sweet, but reminds her of something that I myself have trouble remembering: asking for help is OK. We have no family around to help with the baby, and kind of feel isolated at times, but on those rare occasions we've asked someone to babysit so we can just go relax for a bit, it's amazing how UN-difficult it's been to find someone willing to lend a hand. As long as we don't forget that, we will be safe from the Babadook!
Speaking of the pop-up book, the limited edition of the Blu-ray has a scaled down version of the book's cover, which is very cool, and the special edition is the only way to get Monster and the better bonus features (the junky interviews are on the regular edition, I guess). So if you're a bonus junkie, you should spring for the pricier one, but it's nice that the "non" special edition still has SOMETHING added to sweeten the deal. It's a shame that Kent couldn't be roped in for a commentary (it's the rare Scream Factory release that lacks one), but based on her interview I guess she's not the sort that likes to spell everything out, so it makes sense that she'd opt out of sitting down and talking about the movie for 90 minutes. I DO wish I could get her to reveal whether I'm right regarding the film's title - if you flip the Bs and Ds (in their lowercase form) you get "dada book", which I have no further theory on but I'd like to know if it was intentional. I know the film's anagram is "A Bad Book", but that's boring to me. Team DADA BOOK!
What say you?