The reason why most horror movies are looked down upon (and rightly so) is that they have forgotten what the term ‘horror movie’ means. Most filmmakers don’t realize what turns a human being into a horror film buff. They assume horror means either shock or cheap thrills or gore. That is not what a good horror movie is about. What a good horror movie is about is creating a sense of unrelenting tension and uneasiness in you. Which is why the best horror movies are the ones which are more ‘creepy’ than ‘horrific’.
Films like Sinister, James Wan’s recent offerings, The Orphanage and even The Woman in Black all walked the tricky tightrope between creepy and horrific. The new Australian movie The Babadook nails both the elements to delightful perfection.
Directed with stunning precision and sensitivity by debutant Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is spine tingling hair-raising razor sharp entertainment. The plot presents itself as something very simple: a single mother (Esse Davis) who has lost her husband a few years ago has a hard time raising her increasingly disturbed kid. She lives in a fairly large house made of creaking floors, gloomy lights and dark corners. Sleep is hard to come by because her son is showing signs of sociopathic behavior. Things get even worse when she finds a children’s cutout book named ‘The Babadook’, which carries an eerie poem that warns them of a murderous Mr Babadook creeping in at night when you sleep.
The only way this scenario could transcend its clichés is by offering something more than you expect it to, and rendering the thrills in a manner that don’t feel hollow. Luckily, The Babadook does just that. There are no cheap jump thrills – the film actually feeds you the scares by making them probable (shudder). Mr Babadook himself is rather iconic – the way he moves and sounds is very satisfyingly alarming. The moment someone gets a phone call, a croaking voice says ‘Baaabaaa Dook Dook Dook’ and the rear section of whatever you’re wearing is moistened immediately.
You won’t see the ending coming, and even if you do you’re in luck – because Kent’s direction of the familiar elements is stunning. When a character is cowering in bed you know there’s something freaky above the sheets, but you can’t help squeal in fear because of the way Kent shoots the scene. When kids fall off a height she doesn’t show them dropping on the ground – the scene just cuts before you can react, thereby taking your breath away. Kent also nails the atmosphere and sound design to create constant tension in the film. She has assisted Lars Von Trier previously, so apart from the technical stuff, she’s also learned how to portray the intersection between the themes of grief and terror from the best.
You also don’t expect good acting from horror films so it’s great that Esse Davis delivers an absolutely powerhouse performance here, perhaps one of the best of the year. A sleep deprived single mother is the biggest cliché that an actor can get but Davis is impossible to look away from. When her character veers between uneasiness, melancholy and dread, you do too. He character is itself very well written, offering a female standpoint that is seldom explored by Hollywood. She has no friends, her closest family member has a valid reason to be distant from her, ironically her problematic son who is the root cause of the depression in her life is the only one who genuinely loves her, and there’s a ghost in the house trying to kill both of them. So how does someone like this realistically deal with such a scenario? Call an exorcist? No - Kent goes much farther than the surface. Funnily, the scenes where you don’t see The Babadook work better than the ones when you do. It’s sort of like the case in Mama, where the fear of the unknown is taken away from you the moment the monster shows up. Most fun is the book itself that is featured in the movie – it’s beautifully designed, and really really freaky.
The Babadook has been garnering acclaim during its festival rounds the whole year, so we’re lucky it’s in Indian theaters. If you waste the opportunity and don’t see this film, you’ll hear three knocks on your bedroom door at night. Dook Dook Dook. Chances are, he’s looking at you reading this review, right behind you.
(First published in Firstpost)