A Trip To The Movies – Review: “The Babadook” 12.27.14

As we enter the new year I’m going to be making some more changes to the site. Some feedback I’ve gotten is that my reviews have a tendency to be a little bit too on the lengthy side. So rather than give descriptive overviews of what I like about a director or actor I’m going to trim that section down to make it a bit more accessible for the reader. I will still continue to give a brief summary or synopsis of each film, hopefully without giving away any spoilers, but moving forward you will see more of an emphasis on the aspects I either liked or disliked about the film, with just a short explanation of why I decided to see a film, my thoughts on the director or actors previous efforts, what the “experience” was like for me, etc. And try to come up with something that reads like more of a somewhat traditional movie review than an essay.

The anticipation was high for Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s new horror film “The Babadook”. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than it fell into the horror genre, was garnering a lot of attention and gaining a great critical reception reflected by its high scores and good reviews, on top of the fact that the godfather of horror – director William Friedkin (1973’s “The Exorcist”) himself called it and I quote “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen”. Quite a dubious endorsement indeed by one that horror fans worldwide heard and took note similar to that of myself. So with that being said I made plans several weeks in advance to see it, at the smallest and most intimate theater here in town, in hopes that I would be paired up with a sold out audience (which turned out being the case) where it would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop (which didn’t happen to be the case). Though truly the only way to see a horror film such as this. But more to come on that further down.

The story starts off showing the turbulent relationship between a recently widowed mother Amelia (played by Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman). Samuel seems to be obsessed with ghosts and other supernatural things that he swears he can see but his mother begrudgingly cannot. Samuel has developed such an obsession that he has constant temper tantrums and acts out incessantly, which distances both he and his mother from the local townspeople, the school which Samuel attends, and Amelia’s family. As his excessive talking about evil spirits and ghouls turns most everybody away from the mother and son. One day though, Amelia receives a strange velvet red what appears to be children’s book titled “Mister Babadook”. At first it just seems cautionary, as there are several warning signs within it, similar to that of something out of Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992) or Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” series (1987-present) where opening up the book is like opening up some kind of Pandora’s box. But then Amelia starts to see images that apparently her son has been seeing all the time, and starts to get convinced that maybe the two of them are experiencing some kind of similar supernatural spirit, one that has the ability to take over a person’s mind and body. The stakes get higher when Amelia receives a “second” “Mister Babadook” book. Except unlike the first book, this one contains a much more grisly tale that actually maps out the future of both the mother and child with very alarming predictions. It is at this point where a paradigm shift takes place in the film, and to continue to discuss it any further would require me to divulge important plot details.

My filmgoer partner and I had only one word to describe the film when the house lights came on and the credits rolled – “underwhelming”. We also both agreed that while disturbing and a bit unsettling at points, there was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that was even in the slightest bit remotely scary about this film. What we also agreed on is that if you set out to make a true modern-day horror classic it has to be at least scary to hold any sort of credibility. Almost the entire last row in the theater was laughing throughout most of it. Which I at first found annoying, but then I thought to myself “wait, the outrageousness of it all was actually pretty funny”. So that gave them reason to laugh. Sure it serves up some chills, particularly in the performances of its 2 leads which I thought was the best thing about it. Other than that I thought it wore its influences on its sleeves, paying equal homage to movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1981) which mirrored 2 of the relationships in that film. I also think it owed quite a fair amount to Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge” (2002 and 2004) in terms of its images and execution of the horror. It also can’t be discussed without discussing 2013’s far more scary and terrifying – James Wan’s “The Conjuring” containing within it a far superior better tale of demonic and supernatural possession. It also owed just as much to Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” (2012) in terms of the creature department, Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” (1992) (replacing name chanting for silly knocks), and finally, another Sam Raimi film – 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell” which this film’s ending almost reflected exactly how that one did. But enough with the comparisons – I just really had a hard time getting into something that didn’t feel even remotely original. What I will say is is that writer/director Jennifer Kent does a pretty good job here in creating a creepy mood, tone, and atmosphere as I was slightly captivated by some of the shots and the use of lighting. However despite that I never thought its psychological tone ever really took off and brought me into the territory that only some of the best psychological horror films do. For your average Joe this would be a worthwhile rental when it comes out on DVD. For others I know who are pretty seasoned horror fans I’ll finish by saying this – “don’t believe the hype”.

[C+]

#5: ‘Sinister’ (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” had the make up to be just another lame Hollywood horror entry. It stars Ethan Hawke, who as an actor, I really never cared for much up until just this year having recently grown quite fond of the films of Richard Linklater. It was supposedly about a “supernatural writer” (see countless others like 2004’s “Secret Window” or 2007’s “1408” to name a couple) who awakens dark spirits. In essence the pedigree to be just another standard, run-of-the-mill American horror flick. Then, after hearing some positive feedback about it from some friends of mine I decided to give it a whirl. And of all the horror films that I’m going to make mention of over the next week – this is the one that took me by surprise the most.

To me what’s so impressive about “Sinister” are essentially two major elements that were reaffirmed the second time around was 1) the lighting and 2) the use of score. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a film lit quite like this one. The entire film is essentially filmed indoors. And while although if you look closely you can see that certain segments are clearly shot during the day, the creators always keep the blindfolds down smoldering it in darkness. So dark that at many points all there seems to be is one hovering lighting rig looking down. Which can be disorienting because most of the time all you can see is whatever’s in focus. This could be off putting to some. But to me I thought it was completely effective because it constantly had me wondering and asking myself what could possibly be lurking in the shadows (and there are quite a few scares mind you).  Second, the score by composer Andrea Nebal is pitch perfect. The way in which it is used, especially during the scenes of panic, tension, or dread, is really effective in rattling the viewer. In fact, the score is so good that I can only think of 2 others that are comparable in recent memory. One of which is my #1 film that is going to complete this list so I don’t dare spoil it. The second being Mica Levi’s remarkable score from this year’s “Under The Skin”. All three scores that really act as second characters in the film and without them the end result in each one of the films wouldn’t be half as great. Now I know both of these 2 aspects I highlighted are purely cinematic ones, and would be a hard sell for someone not interested in such areas of film and I completely understand that. However, I’m not trying to shy away from how truly terrifying this movie is. It’s the type of movie that you will see images on screen that will be forever embedded in your brain that even if you try to forgot you will never be able to “un see”. Which to me is one criteria of horror that I love if done right and isn’t cheap or exploitative. And in the case of this film, not only does it right but does it with an added cherry on top.

[B+]