The Babadook ★★★★½

THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent, Australia, 2014, 9)

A first-time feature director outdoes Stanley Kubrick. Yes, really. Jennifer Kent’s horror tale is a possession story centered on a black-magic book, but it shares many basic elements with The Shining, primarily in the structural shift from Film About a Screwed-Up Kid to Film About a Screwed-Up Adult, set in a home haunted with memories of past death(s). And The Babadook succeeds where The Shining doesn’t in managing the transition from the first Film About X to the second. Jack Nicholson turned on an unbelievable dime, while both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman (as a widowed mother and her 6-year-old son) are spectacular. The former plays a burdened, concerned mom for whom the burdens get too heavy, while the latter enacts and enlarges that moment in every misbehaving kid’s eyes when he realizes that “Mom is REALLY angry this time.” Kent’s direction is not just the flashy opening set-piece nightmare but also controlling the slow burn—like The Exorcist, this film does get really over-the-top by the end—and her use of spacing, framing and not-showing. That can be as simple as having mother and son share a bed, but clinging to its opposite edges, and as complex as the angle that produces the illusion of mother-and-son walking away from a helpful neighbor while they walk straight. The Babadook is a technical marvel, from production design conjuring a starkly-decorated and -lit home that looks like a haunted house-in-waiting, to MVP-quality sound editing and mixing crucial for a horror film with relatively little blood. As for the babadook itself: As is true in the best horror films, it’s convincing both literally as itself (a child’s book that conjurs up a shadow monster who plays on your fears, and you can’t make disappear) and as a stylized metaphor for what the film is actually about (tevrs; look up rot13.com if you want the subtext spoiled).
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First published at SLC Weekly: www.cityweekly.net/utah/blog-19-10341-sundance-2014-day-5-reviews.html