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13 Days of Horror: The Babadook

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“Sometimes I just want to bang your head into a brick wall until your brains pop out!”

Synopsis: Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) can barely cope. Not only does the death of her husband still cause her grief but his constant reminder, their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is a hard-to-handle but well-meaning brat. Amelia and Samuel’s despondent bond takes a sinister turn when a book neither of them know the origins of – about a chilling monster called the Babadook – appears in their house and the pair find themselves even more at odds.

I don’t go in much for horror films – they’re really not my thing. More often than not there is too little plot and too many shocks and jumps that feel cursory to the narrative (why do so many horror movie antagonists like play with their food for soooo long – and so intermittently?). The novelty wears off quickly.

But there was something different about The Babadook. Its trailer was just too chilling to ignore, unlike the schlocky Ouija or bog-standard fare, Annabelle. I had to give The Babadook a go, and I had to take my anti-horror brother and horror-loving friend with me (not for support, but rather so that we could all give this film, which only one of us would usually like, a chance).

Ironically, the horror-lover hated it; I completely dug it; and my brother, well, he’s hiding behind a sofa somewhere. I went into The Babadook expecting to brown my pants but I came out having watched a thought-provoking and upsetting drama that is incidentally peppered with some nicely done chills.

Critics have lauded the movie almost universally. It’s all “truly frightening” this and “a thoroughly nerve-wracking film” that, but much social media response is quite the opposite. This no-doubt comes from the fact that the film’s posters, trailers and snippet critiques appear to be selling the masses one film but actually presenting them with something different.

Horror movie checklist: Main protagonist is female – check. Colour palette is as depressingly grayscale as the movie’s tone – check. Child is both funny and an arsehole – check. Totally creepy supernatural being –check. Dross plot that is driven entirely by things that go bump in the night – …… nope.

Debut writer-director Jennifer Kent apparently has as little interest in jumpy horrors with insubstantial stories as I do, which is great for me and my kind. Not so much for people like my horror-loving friend and the audiences who went to watch a stab stab, supernatural monster scary series of thrills but got something else.

Perhaps I come off as patronizing but I am sure Jennifer Kent is more upset: although her film is performing well at the box office audiences are also slamming it simply for “never even showing the Babadook fully” or not being “as scary as The Conjuring“. Those criticisms are superficial at best and they overlook the film’s merits simply because they were given a carrot cake that looked a lot like a marble cake. (And we all know that carrot cake is far nicer than any other cake!)

Here is a film that observes a weary psyche being crippled in a heart-breaking way as prolonged grief, bitterness, poverty and isolation finally take their toll, and people complain because it’s not scary. Most of the themes explored throughout The Babadook are far scarier than a creepy monster, and when it’s a film as subtly intricate and well-made (on a minuscule budget) as this, how do people even focus on its lack of genericism?

I set out to write a straight review for this film, to praise some excellent performances (somebody please give Essie Davis more dramatic work, and when was the last time you watched a child actor whose performance was so stand-out that you have wanted to punch their character, not just them?), and fantastic, nuanced direction but I’ve written an apologist letter to audiences perhaps deterred from seeing the film by lax response.

Though, it is the film’s audience response that really, really makes me love The Babadook – that the film is something different and worth arguing for. When we left the cinema, my anti-horror brother, my horror-loving friend and I had watched a film that had enough substance that we couldn’t stop talking about its cold elegance, multi-interpretative and original plot, and how how our perceptions changed before, during and after we watched it, for better or worse. If that doesn’t make a good horror, I don’t know what does.

The Babadook is in UK cinemas now.

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