The Babadook (IFC Midnight/Scream Factory, R)

babadook 75There’s something pleasingly hand-crafted about The Babadook, beginning with the book that mysteriously appears in the family’s house.

 

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When I moved to Virginia this past summer, I sold most of my DVDs (moving all your belongings via car has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on what you truly need), but I did keep one box set. The Val Lewton Horror Collection occupies a pride of place on my shelf today, right next to the two box sets of Hollywood Camera Work. So that should give you a good idea of my biases—I like horror films of the old-school, psychological terror variety, and I admire directors who use the craft of film in the service of expressiveness and storytelling.

So of course I’m crazy about The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s first feature, which has been impressing film-going audiences for more than a year now. If, like me, you missed it when it was in the theaters, you can catch up now with the DVD/Blu-Ray release from Scream Factory. It’s well worth your while, and not just if you’re a hardcore horror fan, because The Babadook provides both the visceral scares required for an effective horror film and the psychological underpinnings that allow it to transcend that genre.

There’s something pleasingly hand-crafted about The Babadook, beginning with the book that mysteriously appears in the house of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Mr. Babadook tells a rhyming story, with old-fashioned foldouts and manipulable images (designed by Alex Juhasz), about a creepy guy that looks something like Nosferatu in a top hat. Or maybe Nosferatu crossed with Frosty the Snowman, while the verse is more Dr. Seuss meets Edward Gorey channeling Struvelpeter—familiar and disturbingly scary at the same time.

The fact that neither Amelia nor Samuel can remember where the book came from is the first tipoff that something’s not right in this household. The verse in the book is the second. A few choice excerpts: “If it’s in a word or it’s in a book/You can’t get rid of the Babadook” and, “I’ll soon take off my funny disguise/(take heed of what you’ve read)/And once you see what’s underneath…./YOU’RE GOING TO WISH YOU WERE DEAD.”

It makes a lovely bedtime story, to be sure, and is all the more effective since neither Amelia nor Samuel have been sleeping particularly well. In fact, nothing has been right in this family since the night Samuel’s father was killed in a car accident while taking Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. This is where the psychology comes in—this house was haunted long before the Mr. Babadook arrived, as Amelia has been so consumed with grief that she’s not truly present in her own life, and her son is accordingly disturbed because he’s never received the love and attention he needs.

Samuel can be a bothersome little twit, to be sure, screaming for his mother to pay attention to his risky stunts, some of which get him in trouble at school and make him an outcast among his peers. Meanwhile, Amelia is sleepwalking through her life, fulfilling her duties as an orderly in a retirement home and making do with what is surely an inadequate income (in one particularly good scene, during a child’s birthday party, she snaps after one condescending remark too many). Yet, even during the most extreme scenes, the psychological truth of the mother and child relationship maintains—they’re bound together for life, with all their faults and weaknesses, and no one looking on from the outside can ever truly understand the depth of their bond.

There’s something depressive about the sets in The Babadook, as if the life and color have been drained out of Amelia and Samuel’s lives, and the cinematography of Radek Ladczuk also makes their psychological reality concrete. There are several minor characters—a kindly neighbor, an admirer from Amelia’s job, two humorless social workers that drop in on the family—but this film is essentially a two-hander about a mother and child, with the film’s supernatural aspects serving to amplify aspects of that relationship.

The Babadook is distributed on DVD and special edition Blu-Ray by Scream Factory. The special edition comes in a nifty case that includes a facsimile of the cover of the book of The Babadook and a fold-out version of the monster. Other extras on the disc include Jennifer Kent’s short film “Monster” and several featurettes covering matters like the making of the book, a tour of the house sets, and two behind-the-scenes looks at how the special effects were created. There is also cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes, and the theatrical trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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