Movie recommendations need to be tailored. As much as I love Game of Thrones, it's not for everyone. And it's definitely not for my mother. Some movies I take under my wing and recommend to everyone. They are often independent movies that are diamonds in the rough. I become a maven for these films because A) they're great, B) they don't have the marketing dollars to find a wide audience, and C) I love describing them. I love honing my pitch to friends and family. And random people at coffee shops. And Radio Shack.
Just kidding, no one goes to Radio Shack anymore. My 2014 maven movie was The Babadook, a true return to Hitchcock horror. It's about a single mother and her son, both of whom are plagued by the violent death of her husband. The son, Samuel, creates trouble at school and at play, and he fears a monster is lurking in their house. It's a fear that the mother, Amelia, soon begins to share with him, as evidence builds of a sinister presence that surrounds her. I've recommended it to everyone. I'm recommending it to you.
You should see this film. I'm telling you that straight away. And because I'm about to get into some spoilers, proceed with caution, dear readers of internet nonsense. This movie is exponentially better if you watch it without knowing anything about it. Don't even watch the trailer, which is itself a filmic masterpiece. That's right: the trailer for this film alone is better than almost any horror or suspense film I have seen in theaters in a few years.
Spoilers, ahoy. (for The Babadook, The Exorcist and The Omen)
Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, is a master, using light and sound to terrify, all while honoring the story at the center of the film. While most recent horror films trade almost exclusively in jump scares, The Babadook earns everything. Even scenes that seem like mundane setup - such as meetings with school staff - are paid off in fulfilling fashion.
The anchors of the film are actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, who play mother Amelia and son Samuel. Their performances are tremendous, among the best of last year, across all genres. Horror often gets short shrift come awards season (with the notable exception of The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs), but these performances were prime, easily worthy of Oscar nominations.
The first act sets up Samuel to be a troubled child, an homage to classics like The Omen, where a baby was the anti-Christ, and The Exorcist, where a girl is possessed by the devil himself. He looks strange and acts even stranger. Bizarre behavior at school and in social settings with other children not only misdirects us from the true source of trouble - his mother's depression - but it also aligns the audience with the mother. Who hasn't been around a troubled child and pitied their parents? Who can't sympathize with a single mother trying to recover from the tragic death of her husband? This is one of The Babadook's great achievements. It humanizes depression and calls out to us to help those in grief. Ultimately, Samuel is his mother's savior: he holds on to her humanity, even as unrequited grief threatens to kill them both.
By the end of the film, it's clear that the Babadook isn't some demon coming to haunt Samuel. The monster is grief itself, a seven-year-old beast that Amelia hasn't yet confronted. It doesn't possess her, like Reagan is actually possessed by evil in The Exorcist. It grew within her, over the course of seven years, until finally she chose to face it. And face it she does, with her son in her arms, she summons all of the strength in her and then some, screaming, "You are trespassing in my house!"
That moment is incredible, mother and child protecting one another, as the Babadook hides in black shadows. His face is hidden. Only his long fingered hands peeking out, and the faint outline of his unnaturally long arms. And after the confrontation, Amelia tucks the Bababook away in the basement, only to revisit grief when it was necessary and under appropriate conditions.
We barely see the Babadook. On my first viewing, I saw this as a strength of the film, a mature artistic choice that focused the attention on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, rather than the titular antagonist. It kept the emphasis on the story as an analogy for the struggle to deal with lingering grief, mental illness and other kinds of psychosis.
And yet, after a recent rewatch, I found myself wanting to see the Babadook. I wanted to see the beast. And I think it may have made for a better viewing experience. I think it could have been done without sacrificing the artistic integrity of the project. Think again of films like The Exorcist and The Omen. They, too, tease the audience with something wicked, which may this way come. But in those films, we saw the face of the devil. I mean that figuratively. What we saw was confirmation of the truth. The protagonists weren't crazy. They were normal people who were actually seeing something extraordinary, and the text of the film confirmed that.
In those films, the real danger was thinking it was not real. In The Exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) had encountered the demon Pazuzu before. Father Karras was the skeptic. He knew he was seeing something extraordinary, but believing in actual demonic possession was a belief too far. It isn't until Karras sees the demon leap from the possessed girl Regan into Father Merrin, promptly killing him, that Karras believes the demon is truly real. And we as the audience have to see it, too. We would have to see it in real life to believe it. We have to see it in the movie, too.
In The Omen, the boy is the antagonist, along with those the devil sends to protect him. The bridge we must cross is believing the boy is actually the anti-Christ. It's the same belief that Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) must come to hold. There are certainly incidents that prepare him to believe. He finds out his son died in childbirth, and was swapped for an orphan. But it isn't until he travels to the grave of Damien's birth mother, and finds a jackal buried there, that he believes. The fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that the anti-Christ would be born of a beast. We actually get to see the jackal, and we join Thorn in his belief.
If we could have seen more of the Bababook, what would we have seen? Perhaps it would have been the face of Amelia, or a pitiful cypher of her healthier self. It could have been the face of her husband, a form the beast takes earlier in the film. Or it could have been a new face, one of such evil it would have captured culture in a bigger way than The Babadook ultimately has. Every special effects makeup artist in the business would salivate over such an opportunity. And I think it would have made the emotional climax of the film more satisfying. When the Babadook's arms slip back into the darkness, it doesn't feel like a defeat, or even a knockdown punch. It feels like the Babadook will explode again onto the screen, pushing the audience to its emotional limits and personifying the titular evil. That never happens.
Within the film, showing the beast at the very end would have made great sense. In seeing the beast, Amelia would finally have confirmation that she is not the Babadook. She isn't the evil. She and her grief are not identical. She may not be able to rid herself entirely of it, but she is not identical to it. It is an "other," a thing that can be observed. And we the audience would have also observed it with her.
The Babadook is a beautiful, terrifying and excellent film. I'm still incredibly impressed with Jennifer Kent's direction, and she should be offered every high profile directing gig in Hollywood. But I still wanted to see The Bababook. Now, I will have to live with a hundred terrible fan interpretations every Halloween instead.