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The Babadook, Review: Spook or self-help book?

The Babadook, Review: Spook or self-help book?

It’s a ghoulish game! It’s a bed-time horror story! It’s a horrific riddle! It’s Babadook! It’s a self-help book! Not to be confused with Indian/Middle Eastern mystics/sufis/sadhus who go around under the nomenclature of Baba, or (prodigious?) male babies who are affectionately so called, Babadook uses the horror genre to try and conquer the demons within. But heaven help her if any single mother has to take the Babadook route to realise that she has a problem child who needs to be sent to special school, and that it is no fault of hers that he is what he is.

The film is based on the short film Monster, also written and directed by Babadook director Jennifer Kent, in 2005. This is Kent’s feature debut. While she was writing the script, she was staying with a Serbian writer, and asked him, “What’s Serbian for ‘Boogeyman’?” He said “Babaroga,” and she didn’t think that sounded right. (It would have worked in India, for ‘roga’ means sickness in most Indian languages)! She started playing with “Baba,” and that’s how “Babadook” came up. A book is being planned now, after the release of the film.

Amelia, a widowed hospital orderly, has raised her son Samuel alone, following her husband's tragic death. Sam begins displaying erratic behavior: he rarely sleeps through the night, and is constantly preoccupied with an imaginary monster, which he has built weapons to fight. Amelia is forced to take her son out of school due to his ongoing behavioural problems. One night, Sam asks his mother to read from a mysterious pop-up storybook he found on his shelf. The story, titled ‘Mister Babadook’, is about a supernatural creature that, once someone is made aware of its existence, torments that person indefinitely. Amelia is disturbed by the book's contents, while a traumatised Sam becomes convinced that the Babadook is stalking them in their home.

Strange events begin occurring throughout the house, but Amelia attributes them to Sam acting out; all the while Sam insists that Babadook is responsible. Amelia eventually rips up the Mister Babadook book and disposes of it in a rubbish bin outside their home. One morning, Amelia hears knocking at the door, and finds a reassembled and altered Mister Babadook story-book on the front step. She reads a new passage about how the monster becomes stronger the more someone denies its existence, and sees new pop-ups that depict a woman killing a dog, strangling a boy to death, and cutting her own throat.

Imagination and flash-forward are used with abandon, completely assimilated with real-time action. While this makes the horror justified, it also ends of creating endless confusion. Demons of the mind, self questioning, lack of confidence, failure to come to grips with grim reality and similar mental conditions are a stark reality of life, and a million books have been written on these topics, aimed at providing the reader tools of self-help. Not many, however, would try to address them with a horror genre approach. Kudos to Kent for being different. But different does not necessarily mean great. She is garnering lime-light for the brave attempt, like On Twitter, veteran Oscar-winning US film-maker William Friedkin (The Exorcist) compared her film to notable zeitgeist-changing classics of the horror genre. “Psycho, Alien, Diabolique, and now The Babadook,” he tweeted, adding: “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” With all due respect to Freidkin, Babadook might be scary, but even here, The Exorcist scores higher. Rationalising horror as an internal condition helps its unfettered cinematic use, but you have to suspend credibility to a deep-freeze level to go with the flow.

On the cast, Essie Davis, Kent’s fellow Australian and friend from student days, gives a compelling performance as the mother. She looks haggard and over-age, which aspects fade when seen in context. Noah Wiseman as Samuel is incredible for his (apparent) age, probably because when Jennifer was little, she also used to make stuff, she used to “make weapons and go-karts and s**t like that.”.

Hayley McElhinney plays Davis’s sister, and is convincing in the small role. Tim Purcell lends his voice to The Babadook, striking the right, scary chords. Now a word, from Kent herself, on the most natural performance in the film:  “My mom has Parkinson’s, and she’s just a beam of light. And the neighbour character, Mrs. Roach, is very much like my mom. And so it wasn’t a conscious thing, actually, I just put it in there. I wanted this character to be really loving, but also frail. We feel for because her frailty is so evident. I told my casting agent I wanted someone with Parkinson’s to play Mrs. Roach. Barbara West has had a tremor since she was 40. That’s not acted. We found her in the state in which we shot the film.”

The Babadook is innovative. Once that sets in, it has little else to give. A simplistic moral ends the tale: If you have issues of stress, a tormented past and a problem child, and don’t know how to cope, lock these issues in a symbolic store-room and keep feeding them.

Not very a optimistic or encouraging line of treatment, is it?

Rating: **



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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