Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Distributed by IFC Midnight and The Scream Factory
One of the great joys of cinema is that unless a film is truly, irredeemably bad there’s always the chance that if you didn’t like it the first time around, maybe a second go will shift opinion. This was my experience with The Babadook (2014). It’s still the most overhyped film of last year by a considerable margin, and much of what’s been said about it comes across as hyperbole, but it is definitely not one of the worst films of last year… which is what I claimed when adding it to my Worst of 2014 list here on Dread Central. After taking into account all of the critical lauding and incredible praise (William Friedkin said he’s “never seen a more terrifying film”, not that he’s the foremost authority on horror), my initial viewing went poorly as the main child annoyed me to the point of near-insanity and the scares just never seemed to materialize. It seemed as though critics and audiences were so hungry for fresh, well-made horror that the first halfway decent picture to come along got hoisted up on everyone’s shoulders and paraded around town like the second coming.
So, it was with some trepidation that a second viewing came about when, like the titular character’s pop-up book, a review copy was left by my front door.
The story of The Babadook is that of grief, loss and trying to piece together a shattered life. Amelia (Essie Davis) is left to raise her behaviorally-challenged son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), after her husband dies while they are en route to the hospital when she goes into labor. Her feelings of loss have not subsided in the seven years since the accident. Samuel, meanwhile, has grown into a child of considerable annoyance. He’s boisterous, loud, petulant and very protective of his mother, although he has no concept of being on his best behavior so she can maintain an air of sanity. Amelia is worn down to a nub, ceasing to live a meaningful life and merely eking out a pitiful existence. Samuel’s behavior constantly pushes the boundaries of acceptability, and eventually his antics get him kicked out of school.
Amelia decides what she and Samuel needs is a brief respite; a few days to recharge, aided by an understanding doctor’s prescription for a sleep aid. One night, Samuel selects a bedtime book that Amelia doesn’t recognize – “Mister Babadook”. The pop-up book proves nightmarish, leaving Samuel in a crumpled heap of tears and Amelia totally disturbed. She tears the book up and tosses it away, but the next day it reappears on her doorstep taped back together and sporting a few new pages. The story warns of the Babadook’s call, that you can’t get rid of it, and some of the pop-ups are an effigy of Amelia performing horrible acts. Considering the fractured state of her mental faculties, Amelia finds herself allowing the Babadook into her head, threatening both her and Samuel’s lives.
The Babadook is horror at its most basic – a parent must protect their child from a monster trying to invade their home. It’s been told a thousand and one times, and this film doesn’t differ from the countless others by a whole lot. What sets The Babadook apart is a mostly-good script and an absolutely searing performance from Essie Davis. I suppose credit is also due to Noah Wiseman as her incorrigible, intolerable son Samuel. Maybe his performance is easier to digest if you’ve already got kids, but, man, he is so incredibly snotty. Even his accent and facial mannerisms made me want to hurl him through a wall. This kid excels at pushing people to the point of seriously considering how much jail time you’d get for “accidentally” kicking him off a cliff. But that’s exactly how Samuel has to act in order to get Amelia where the film needs her, and so for those reasons he deserves applause for nailing it.
Davis is revelatory as Amelia. After experiencing a major trauma (the loss of her husband), she has no time to grieve, thrust immediately into childcare. In the seven years since the accident, she has developed a dichotomous personality, one which seems to both love and loathe Samuel. He isn’t the root of her current psychosis, but he’s a driving force in exacerbating it. The emotional rollercoaster Davis takes viewers on is palpable. Her character has a defined arc and we bear witness to her most primal moments of catharsis. Her performance ranks among the best of 2014 in any category, not just horror.
Where The Babadook managed to lose me was in symbolism and scares, the latter of which might as well be non-existent unless you’re the sort who rarely watches horror and is scared by any loud noise. The scares here are of the same sort you’d find in every other haunting movie, no exceptions. As for the symbolism, well, let’s just say anyone well-versed in cinema should have no problem understanding where the Babadook comes from and what it all means. The script is practically ham-fisted in its delivery, offering up allegories which are simply too on-the-nose to be appreciated. There isn’t any subtlety.
Overhyped to its own detriment, The Babadook is definitely a commendable achievement nonetheless, especially as a debut feature. The only reason I’m hesitant to sings its praises after a reevaluation is because, as I’ve said before, the DTV market is hot right now. Really hot. And there are so many awesome horror films coming out of it that it isn’t possible to say The Babadook stands above the rest; it is, however, one of the better horror films of last year and while it wouldn’t have made my top five it shouldn’t have been in the bottom, either.
Framed at 2.35:1, the film’s 1080p picture is visually fantastic. The picture was shot using the Arri Alexa digital camera, allowing for a crystal clear image with razor sharpness and a complete lack of grain. Colors are accurate, with the palette veering toward shades of blue, black and grey. Black levels look inky and rich. Detail stays strong, even when the scene is in complete darkness. There’s really nothing worth complaining about here.
Everyone knows a good score and sound mix are essential to any horror film, and the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track used here is exemplary. The score, from composer Jed Kurzel, is ethereal and minimalist, punctuating only at precise moments. These scenes of serenity are interrupted by the booming presence of the Babadook, whose appearance is often preceded by big, loud knocks. They’re jolting, but it never feels like a cheap stinger. This is a strong, powerful present track that goes far in elevating the film’s effectiveness. A 2.0 stereo track is also included. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
Jennifer Kent’s short film Monster, which she has called “baby Babadook”, is included here. It’s very similar in story and tone to the feature film and is worth watching either before or after The Babadook.
A trio of deleted scenes are presented in HD, which are mostly extra bits with Samuel.
“Creating the Book with Illustrator Alex Juhasz” features the talented guy behind the creepy pop-up book talking about how he got hired for this project and then showing off the “master hero” prop used in the film.
“A Tour of the House Set” discusses how the production team wanted a “storybook quality” to the home, to match some of the film’s themes, and this piece shows off what it took to put Amelia and Samuel’s residence together.
“The Stunts: Jumping the Stairs” is a quick piece that shows the team setting up the shot where Samuel is pulled upstairs.
“Special Effects: The Stabbing Scene” shows off one of the film’s minor FX moments. They used a leg of lamb in place of Davis’ thigh. It looked delicious.
“Behind the Scenes” is simply some B-roll from the film’s set.
“Cast & Crew Interviews” is a series of talks with actors Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Hayley McElhinney, director Jennifer Kent, costume designer Heather Wallace, and producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere, running for just over an hour.
Two theatrical trailers are also included.
Scream Factory really steps up their game here by offering a very cool package for buyers of the special edition. A slick red slipcover is featured on initial pressings, with a flap on the front held by Velcro opening up to reveal a pop-up Babadook from right out of his signature book. It’s a great touch to nerd out on. The single disc itself is housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The cover art is reversible.
- Jennifer Kent’s short film, Monster
- Deleted scenes
- Creating the Book with Illustrator Alex Juhasz
- A Tour of the House Set
- The Stunts: Jumping the Stairs
- Special Effects: The Stabbing Scene
- Behind the Scenes
- Cast & Crew Interviews
- Theatrical trailers
- Reversible cover art
- Special “pop-up book” slipcover