What I'm Watching: The Babadook
A little while ago, during my It Follows review, while discussing that movie's use of metaphor, that there was another movie I had seen around the same time that also tried to tell a horror story through the use of metaphor and allegory to say something about the nature of death and grieving. Well, it's time to review THAT movie, The Babadook.
This movie suddenly appeared to rave reviews for it's new take on horror, an original idea, a new monster, and being extremely well done. So naturally, I was really looking forward to seeing it.
The Babadook revolves around a mother and son, recovering from the loss of the boy's father. Even though it happened before he was born, the kid is still dealing with nightmares (The mother too, but adults deal with stuff better), and one day they receive a strange book that calms the boy down, but is still terrifying. Your typical unsanitised folklore/fairy tale, about the titular Babadook.
Sam is doing anything he can to try and connect to the father he never knew, by inventing things, dangerous dangerous things, and studying magic. Meanwhile, the mom is trying to bury every trace of her husband, locking away every little piece of his old life, so she can move on. But all she's doing is hiding it away and not dealing with her loss. The metaphors here are...far from subtle. And on top of all that, she clearly has moments of wishing it had been the boy that died instead of her husband, and she's tired of the weight this kid puts on her shoulders. Again, not terribly subtle metaphors.
Of course, being a horror movie, things have to start going weird, and they do. Things start moving around, noises and scratchings and voices, an oppressive presence, all leading up to the Babadook manifesting itself.
The long sleepless nights take their toll on the family, and Amelia becomes more and more worn down, taking it out on Sam, the people around her, and the movie becomes more about the horror of sleep deprivation leading to bad parenting for awhile.
It actually becomes hard to tell just how much is because of the sorrow and loss Amelia isn't dealing with, leading to her aggressive behaviour, or if she's really being overtaken by a malevolent spirit, or what.
This all builds to an eventual non-confrontation where they take the Babadook into the locked basement of the dead father's things, finally confronting the monster and the skeleton in the closet.
The movie constantly reminds us that you can't get rid of the Babadook, much like grief, it's always there, always inside us, no matter how much we lock it away. Just like grief, they eventually 'deal' with the Babadook by locking it in the basement, which is also where everything of her husband's is. So, the monster and the past are all shoved behind locked doors. And now, with it locked in their basement, this family must learn to live with their loss...er, the monster in the basement. Have I mentioned the lack of subtlety?
I really don't understand how keeping a monster in your basement and keeping it fed on bowls of dirt and worms is a proper ending to a story, or what that has to do with grief, and is a rather odd note to end the movie on.
The metaphors of this movie are, quite obviously, pretty thickly laid on. It Follows may not have been that subtle either, but they didn't keep hammering it home, and the movie actually worked on its own as just a straight up monster story, and was enhanced by the metaphors. But with The Babadook, if you ignore the metaphor, if you take it away, there IS no story, there is no horror. The Babadook is the personification of their grief and their loss, and without the metaphor, it doesn't properly exist. This movie *does not work* on any level without the metaphor. It gets in the way of the story.
The kid is SO annoying. Half his lines are yelled. Half of those are either "MOM! MOM! LOOK MOM!" or just straight up "AAAAAHHH!" and it's shrill, and annoying, and throws me straight out of the movie. I do not care at all what happens to him. I may in fact be a horrible person, but here we are.
The movie tries to treat the Babadook as a memetic virus of sorts, and once it's in your head, you can't get it out, and the more you think of it, the more it comes through and can affect the world. These are all far from original ideas, and while as far as this family goes, they're presented well, ultimately the meme-like nature never really works for me. We pretty much only experience the Babadook from this sole family's perspective. We don't really get to see it spread, or hear of its mythology at ALL, so it doesn't feel like a viral thing, just a ghost tormenting this lone family.
On the upside, the movie is visually stunning, and uses sound to amazing effect, but without a story I care about, it's a bit of a waste. But I can't fault the movie for its craft. There's some good creepy moments, especially with the animated book, and they needed to do more with that. The other problem with the style though, is that the monster is somehow at once creepy, and whimsical. They're clearly shooting for a Guillermo Del Toro vibe, and I think they missed the mark. The less they show of the Babadook, the better, and when we see too much of a glimpse, and they try to make it look like a drawing, things start to not work. They wisely keep the monster to the shadows, and in people's heads for most of the time.
We're always searching for original horror stories, and I think this movie suffers from being TOO original. If it had used some existing mythology or folklore, it could've had some familiarity to hang itself on instead of trying to create and convince us of the power of this whole new monster.
As you can tell, I am not a fan of this movie, and really don't get why people love it as much as they seem to. It's probably because of the way it examines the allegory of grief through this personification, but it just doesn't work for me, and I never connected with the kid, so there were no stakes for me.
This is a case of going too far with a metaphor, until the subtext becomes text, and you can't divorce one from the other. And while it has some great atmosphere and some shivers it causes, the story just never manages to take off, because the metaphors just get in the way of telling a good horror story in its own right.
I don't really recommend The Babadook, since the acting makes me cringe a lot, especially the kid, and even when the mother is yelling at the monster. The story is drab, and just isn't as good a horror story as much as it is a talk about loss and how people deal with it, but it makes the dealing with loss story too much of a horror story.
It's a shame, because there's some nice style here, and the direction is top notch. The movie sure knows how to look and sound great, but the story doesn't match up with the style. The Babadook was my most anticipated movie that had a great hook, and a great look to it, and was just a disappointment for me.