Saturday, April 11, 2015

THE BABADOOK (2014) Blu-ray Review

The Babadook (2014) d. Jennifer Kent (Australia)

Troubled widow Amelia (Isolation’s Essie Davis) wrestles with her own mental and emotional stability as well as that of her seven-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a struggle exacerbated by a malevolent presence invoked by the appearance of a mysterious children’s book. This well-crafted tale of haunting secrets and psychological breakdown nearly does itself a disservice by amping up the chills so superlatively during its opening act that the climax - which would stand proudly under normal circumstances - barely manages to keep pace.

Touted by none other than William Friedkin as "the scariest movie I've ever seen," elevated expectations have been the order of the day since word first crept out about actress-turned-writer/director Kent's feature debut. Fortunately, thanks to an expertly cultivated atmosphere of dread (big credit to production and sound designers Alex Holmes and Frank Lipson, respectively) and a knack for escalating tension and release, this is the rare beast that lives up to the hype - for the most part - and its creator seems poised to take her rightful place within the hearts of the horror faithful.

In expanding her terrifying 2005 short Monster, which concerned a similar creature residing in a boy's closet, the rookie helmswoman's only potential misstep - at least in terms of audience satisfaction - lies in her macabre story's ambiguous conclusion. There's no denying Kent knows how to go big, but what feels like it could (should?) be an Aliens-esque, mom vs. the boogeyman showdown rings a little hollow, failing to deliver a true, crowd-pleasing catharsis. And yet, maybe this is in fact the point - for Amelia, there can never be a true exorcism of grief and pain, only a grudging acceptance. Considering this unnerving prospect delivers yet another emotional wallop as the credits roll.

Still, for my money, the film's most haunting moments are the early ones where we are introduced to the pages of Mr. Babadook; Alex Juhasz's astonishing pop-up designs and evocative illustrations tap into that inexplicable terror of a certain children's story which, unlike the phantoms lurking behind the closet door or under the bed, seems content to reside smirking amidst its "harmless" brethren on the shelf. (I don't think I realized it until now, but we all had a Mr. Babadook, didn't we?)

In a showcase role, Davis nails the desperation of motherhood with every fevered glance, every hitched sigh. As the titular supernatural being expands its presence, so too does the actress, swelling both inwardly and externally - Davis actually seems to deepen, a yawning chasm that we tumble into, while at the same time quadrupling her nervous tics in frequency and intensity. Her final-reel transformation into bellowing ogre, however earned, feels just a tad indulgent; she shines brightest when her sound levels stay out of the red.

Wiseman provides marvelous support, the quintessential hyperactive child hellbent on trying his parent's last nerve. (It's high praise indeed that many friends have commented on how "annoying" they find Samuel, as this only increases our empathy for Amelia, who literally has no one else to turn to.)

However, beneath the ADHD trappings lies a frightened and lonely child, and Kent makes sure we ache for our protagonists equally. Their mutual devotion is never in question, but as the saying goes, is love enough to save them? Both swear to protect one another even as they exhibit monstrous tendencies of their own; all the while, the swirling, shrieking, supernatural being threatens to swallow them whole. "Ba ba-BA Dook Doooook DOOOOOK!!!!"

Shout! Factory has partnered with IFC Films to deliver 2014's critical horror darling to the home video market, with their limited edition Blu-ray's pop-up packaging the icing on the creepy cake. Though the absence of a director's commentary is felt, the deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the inclusion of Kent's original short help ease the pain.

The Babadook is available for pre-order from Shout! Factory, with a street date of Tuesday, April 14. Check it out HERE:

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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