It’s interesting that two of the year’s more intriguing movies involve elements of horror. Why not? We don’t exactly live in times without terror.
Both movies, by the way, drew attention as part of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 43-year-old New Directors/New Film series. I’m talking about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Babadook, both films directed by women.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
More about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was directed by newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour, at a later date. Suffice it to say now that it’s an Iranian vampire movie filmed in Los Angeles. I know, you’re sick of vampires, but Amirpour’s film, shot in black-and-white, is too eerily unnerving to dismiss.
This week, though, we’ll turn attention to The Babadook, a movie that’s beginning to make its way around the country after its debut on VOD.
Australian director Jennifer Kent accomplished what I’d begun to think was impossible: She’s made a good horror movie; i.e., one that doesn’t shortchange scary thrills, but is also rife with ambiguity and psychological subtext.
The Babadook involves a children’s book about a strange figure named The Babadook. He wears a top hat, and almost always is seen in silhouette. He’s scary, ominous and perhaps unstoppable. He’s dread personified.
The story begins when the widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) reads this strange pop-up book to her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). It takes Amelia a while to realize that the book, which seems to have appeared from nowhere, isn’t exactly a cuddly, bedtime tale.
From that point on, The Babadook begins to mix horror with parental frustration while raising troubling questions: Is Amelia losing her mind? Is Samuel a demon child? Is a real demon terrorizing both of them?
I won’t say much more about the plot except to tell you that Amelia became a widow when her husband died in a car crash. He was driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. How’s that for a large can of psychological worms?
But here’s the thing — or at last a thing — with which you’ll have to come to grips. Samuel is an obnoxious, impossible kid. He’s prone to tantrums. He’s mildly precocious. And he’s dangerously aggressive. At one point, he pushes a cousin out of a tree house.
So naturally, we sympathize with a mother who’s at the end of her rope. But Kent shifts that focus after we begin to wonder whether Amelia is losing her grip.
Perhaps all the horror we’re witnessing in Amelia’s home — lots of things that go bump in the night — is a creation of her mind, flowing from her badly damaged psyche.
When it comes to creating tension and keeping us off balance, Kent is no slouch.
But here’s where the movie distinguishes itself: Almost everything we see is anchored to the real exasperation of a single mother who’s being pushed to limits that are carefully delineated in Davis’s increasingly unhinged performance.
I suppose The Babadook can be classified as a haunted-house movie, but it’s more than that. It will rattle you and also give you something to think about as it moves toward its provocative and psychologically intelligent conclusion.