THE BABADOOK (2014, Jennifer Kent)
It’s tempting to focus heavily on what THE BABADOOK is about, because for a horror movie it’s quite rich in allegory and a strong message about What Everything Represents. And I’ll get to that. But what should not get lost is the technical work on display — this is an incredibly strong piece of filmmaking, from the composition to the blocking to the cutting and the sound design.
The best horror films are known for being good with offscreen space. What we don’t see is usually scarier than what we do. And Jennifer Kent is really smart about uniting the offscreen space scares of the horror material with offscreen space style in its everyday, non-paranormal scenes. In the opening scenes, we hear people speak before we see them — a children’s book is opened and the first shot is a close up of the page, with the mother narrating it, then it cuts to the mom for her reaction to the line, rather than earlier, to see her speak it. Shortly after, there’s a playground scene where a child is climbing a jungle gym and what he does offscreen is begging the camera to cut to him, so every second Kent spends on two women speaking on a bench heightens the tension — which is paid off marvelously by a smash cut to a moment at least ten minutes in the future.
And once the scares start coming, the same style is utilized, but now we’re used to it. We’re familiar with hearing things before we see them. The camera will be on Essie Davis’s remarkable face (her performance should not fly under the radar — it’s pitched so well) when we hear something knock. Or it will be on a policeman’s curious gaze before we see the suspicious hands he’s looking at. Even when Davis is talking to school administrators about her troublemaker son, Kent shoots the three of them in a separated way: only showing them all in one shot when we’re peering over the backs of the admins, Davis centered in the frame as in an interrogation. The rest of the shots are POVs with the admins staring offscreen at Davis, whom we cut to just to see her helpless, lonely reactions.
And Davis being lonely is key to the text of this film which, as I said before, is bold and almost too obvious. Anyone who has seen it has known that it’s about the fears of parenting, about the trouble of doing it alone, about the hate or resentment we often have for children, which then makes us feel horribly guilty for entertaining such dark thoughts. This is not arguable, and the movie leaves no room for dispute — I can’t see anyone disagreeing on what this thing is about. And if it has any flaws, it’s that it feels a little too insecure about communicating this (albeit fascinating and worthy) subject matter, so it underlines it at every step. But it’s executed tremendously, and I’d rather see a heavy-handed film done well than a subtle movie done poorly. And don’t let me undersell the “done well.” This movie scared the ever-loving shitfuck out of me.