Thursday, April 16, 2015

How The Babadook became the Most Acclaimed Horror Film of the New Century

One of my pet peeves is when people make decisions about whether or not to watch a movie solely based on its Rotten Tomatoes score. Never mind the possibility that you may disagree with the consensus and like whatever movie you were interested enough to look up, there are issues with film criticism in general that play into those numbers. One of these is the condescension and dismissal towards horror films. I've often told people to add 20 points to a horror movie's rating on that site to balance things out. This technique proves ineffective on The Babadook, which scored 97 percent, impressive for any film but downright astonishing for this genre. It's on DVD now so it seemed like a good time to try and analyze just what went so right.

The last horror film I can think of that enjoyed this level of acclaim was The Sixth Sense in 1999, which earned a numerically appropriate six Oscar nominations to show for it. There have been plenty of great horror films in the intervening 15 years, but more often than not, horror gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. So how did The Babadook do it? How did this little Australian independent film with the funny name snap so many critics out of their judgmental haze? I think it boils down to several major elements, which I'll detail individually.

A Reminder of Horror's Potential

So how exactly did horror become such a disreputable genre in America? It hasn't always been this way. In 1973, The Exorcist received a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Other touchstones of 70s horror like Carrie and The Omen were also recognized. Shortly after that was Halloween, which deserves its place in the pantheon of horror classics, but inadvertently led to a boom of "slasher" films in the early 80s that changed the way the genre was viewed...and not in a good way. By the end of a decade saturated with slashers, film critics and American culture at large began to associate the entire genre with the tropes of slasher films, particularly the fact that they were meant for teenagers.

So in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs blows minds everywhere and becomes the only horror film in history to win the Oscar for Best Picture. But wait, horror films were supposed to be for dumb high-schoolers and not worthy of serious consideration. What's a snob to do? Well, people began to call Silence of the Lambs a "psychological thriller," which allowed them to justify their appreciation of it while distancing themselves from horror. That phrase has continued to be used for horror films where the scares come from non-supernatural elements and are considered "adult," even if they have grisly murder scenes worse than anything in the Friday the 13th series. Slasher films have mostly tapered off, but Hollywood continues to operate as if horror films are meant exclusively for teens who want the same experience over and over again. The same demonic possession movie comes out every year, sometimes with found footage, sometimes not. Up until a couple of years ago, when a wave of polished American independent horror films began to emerge, the best examples of the genre were coming from Europe and Asia, places where it's taken far more seriously.

Coming from Australia, Jennifer Kent's The Babadook has made enough of an impact to challenge how the genre is perceived here in the USA. It is unquestionably a horror film and unquestionably for adults. It's hard for even the most horror-averse film buff to deny its virtues. The story is highly ambitious, the visuals are wonderfully creative (the pop-up book scenes, wow!) and there's a whole lot of subtext and metaphor to sift through if you're so inclined. Viewers who are used to the well-worn tropes of mainstream horror films have pushed back against its acclaim, calling it "boring" and insisting it's not scary at all. Well, if you define "scary" by how often you leap out of your seat in shock, that may be true. On that note...

No False Scares

A lot of people say they hate jump scares. I don't think that's what they actually mean. A really great jump scare is exhilarating. What pisses people off are false scares, which are a plague upon the genre. You know what I'm talking about - someone's wandering a dark house, things are getting tense...and then something jumps out! There's some huge metallic noise, the camera whirls around...but wait! Oh, it's just a friend wearing a scary mask! Or it's just a cat! Nothing to be scared of after all!

People hate that shit and I don't blame them. A rant by Chris Stuckmann became a viral hit among movie buffs for articulating very well what we all think about this cliche. It's cheap, overused and dilutes the terror of the actual frightening moments yet to come. Horror movies specialize in building tension, but if too much gets released during these fake-outs, the audience gets burnt out quick. This doesn't mean you can't ever have someone get startled by something harmless, but you don't want to treat it the same way you treat the real thing. In The Babadook, there's a scene where Amelia gets interrupted at a very inopportune moment when her son runs into the room. It's an unexpected scene, but it's not trying to freak us out. It's trying to get us to empathize with Amelia, who just can't get any time to herself without her troublesome son causing some sort of random mischief.

The monster in The Babadook is spooky, but even it's not the real source of horror in this film. What makes it so effective is the gradual understanding of just what may be going on in the head of the main character. On that note...

Psychological Horror

So you know by now how I feel about the phrase "psychological thriller." However, psychological horror is arguably the most enduring horror subgenre, stretching all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920.

When we first meet Amelia, she's an overworked single mother with a troublesome son prone to delirious fits. Her struggle to keep her life in order (along with Essie Davis's performance, which we'll get to) immediately resonates with viewers, many of whom also feel that they are doing their best in the current economic era and it's still not enough. However, it slowly becomes apparent that her troubles run much deeper. Her husband died in a car accident on the day her son was born and although many years have passed, she is still deeply depressed and struggling with unresolved feelings about the tragedy...feelings that none of us would admit.

When the monster shows up, the film strongly suggests that it only exists in Amelia's mind and represents the dark feelings she struggles to keep at bay. The text in the pop-up book that heralds its appearance can be interpreted to support this ("the more you deny, the stronger I'll get"). When Amelia is fully possessed by the babadook near the end of the movie, she becomes a violent danger to her son. Interestingly, the boy seems to accept the idea that a literal monster really has taken control of his mother, but the movie points towards something much scarier. Amelia blames him in part for her husband's death. She knows this is wrong but can't get it out of her mind just the same. If she were to get worn down enough by grief and depression to lose her control over those urges, the family might turn into one of those shocking stories you hear about on the news every so often.

This idea is much more disturbing than a monster who emerges from a cursed pop-up book and that's because it breaks a major taboo. Women are supposed to be happy to be mothers, no exceptions. In the arty drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, it's suggested that Tilda Swinton's dissatisfaction with motherhood is at least partly to blame for Kevin growing up to be a dangerous sociopath. Here, it's the mother that becomes the threat and not to a teenager but a small child. It's button-pushing, risky storytelling with the potential to totally alienate most of the audience...but the movie has an ace up its sleeve to keep that from happening. On that note...

Essie Davis

Another effect the slasher films had in America was that horror began to be associated with terrible acting, even though the full history of the genre has a long list of great performances. Add Essie Davis to that list. Her performance turns this character into someone the audience cares deeply for, even during her darkest moments. There's no movie-star glamour here, she looks exhausted and disheveled for most of the movie...and that's before the really bad stuff starts. Here's film critic A.A. Dowd:

"There’s an overwhelming emotional power to this bump-in-the-dark material, and it’s owed chiefly to star Essie Davis, an Australian actress whose most prominent prior role was probably a supporting turn in the Matrix sequels. No mere scream queen, Davis offers a disturbingly acute portrait of festering resentment, demonstrating how undigested trauma can curdle slowly into abusive rage. The Babadook, the well-dressed fiend of the title, is scary. But he’s not half as scary as Davis. It’s a true transformation, from quietly frazzled mother to bellowing monster of grief."

In the final confrontation, Amelia struggles to shield her son from the monster, which appears not as the pale-faced ghoul who showed up earlier but as a huge dark shadow creeping across the room, a"dark cloud" that is often a personification for depression. This time she gives it what-for, shouting that "if you ever hurt my son again, I'LL FUCKIN' KILL YOU!" In the wrong hands, this scene could have turned into unintentional humor but Davis just nails it. Her rage is transcendent and the moment is deeply cathartic. Who wouldn't want to stand in front of their inner demons and cuss them out?

All that said, Davis really had no chance at a Best Actress nomination. Critics were blown away, but none of the major award season pundits even entertained the possibility and sure enough, they were right. There's a rumor that The Babadook's simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming services rendered it ineligible according to Academy bylaws, but that was never confirmed. If it's true, that's obviously a rule better left in the past. But if it's not, there's still not much hope for horror films when it comes to this type of award. The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense had major box office success to show off, something The Babadook never achieved. Historically, the Oscars prefer tepid middlebrow dramas like The Theory of Everything over even the most well-crafted horror films. The Best Actress category in particular has been suffering from a lack of creativity for quite a while now. That's not to say Davis would have won had she earned the nomination. Nobody was going to beat Julianne Moore last year, but even so, the recognition would have been a huge deal for people who work in the genre and for people who believe in its merit.

But the Oscars can go screw. This was an amazing performance and film history will be kind to it.

Final Thoughts

The Babadook impresses people not just because it's a great horror film, but because it's really about something. Jennifer Kent didn't just want to frighten people, she wanted to tell a story that would resonate with people who have suffered from grief and depression and, given the way the movie ends, leave them with some hope. In short, she took the genre seriously and it shows. The recent film It Follows is enjoying similar acclaim for similar reasons, including a mysterious monster ripe for analysis and a compelling lead performance from Maika Monroe. It also has outstanding widescreen and deep focus cinematography which really makes it stand out. If we keep getting horror films as good as this and if they get such enthusiastic responses, then perhaps, over a long period of time, the genre can finally get some respect here in America. Maybe.