Rabble! Rabble, rabble! Airman Xley hasn’t reviewed anything in over a week! Rabble!
I know, I know – my lack of reviews didn’t help your already depressed week of rain and disappointment. This is what happens when yours truly sees all the ‘big’ movies early and there’s a lull in theatrical releases. Don’t you fret now darlin’, I’ll be double fisting some film brewskis today to make up for my cinematic callousness. Since it’s still a bit early to see this weekend’s blockbusters, I thought I’d dive into the ol’ ‘User Suggestions’ box and find something in the spirit of the upcoming Poltergeist remake.
Here at last, take a look; here’s my review of the Babadook – Dook – Dook! Don’t worry dear reader – I’ll do a Dr. Seuss style review eventually . Oh, and since this isn’t really a true ghost story, I thought I would compare it with something that is – namely the 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage. Because why the fuck not?
In all seriousness though, these films actually do pair extremely well and have a lot more in common than you might think. On the surface, both stories are predominantly centered on the relationship of a mother and her troublesome young son. The mother is tormented by some otherworldly being (be it a ghost or a pop-up book character gone rogue), and she then sporadically retreats into madness. These films are increasingly unnerving, and for the most part rely on elements of atmospheric horror rather than pointless ‘jump scares’ to create an overpowering sense of dread. Additionally, it should be noted that both films, Orphanage and Babadook, are the feature film directorial debuts of J.A. Bayona and Jennifer Kent respectively.
Now, I’ll admit it’s mildly self-serving to pit a user suggested film against one of my own choosing, so I will begrudgingly recommend both The Babadook and The Orphanage right off the bat. They’re both very similar thematically and in the way they approach their horror aspects, but El Orfanato, as it is called in its native Spain, will clearly appeal to the larger audience. Actually I take that back, people for whatever reason hate subtitles don’t they? For Christ’s sake people, you’re reading this review as we speak. Reading a few subtitles for a Spanish film aren’t going to kill you.
In Babadook we find a young, frazzled mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) still struggling to cope with the loss of her husband who was killed in a car crash on the day of their son’s birth. The child, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is quite possibly the most insufferable, high-maintenance kid to ever make an onscreen appearance. He’s shrill, terrified of monsters, and he was one high-pitched ‘MOM! MOM! MOM!’ away from forcing me to throw something at my TV for a respite.
One night when she’s attempting to calm Samuel down for bed, Amelia begins reading a mysterious pop-up book her son finds on his bookshelf. After quickly realizing the inappropriate and violent nature of the book, she stops reading and attempts to destroy it, though she is ultimately unsuccessful. The whole thing is kind of creepy in that Necronomicon / Evil Dead sort of way. Without knowing any better, Amelia has just summoned Mr. Babadook, a nightmarish cross between Nosferatu and Edward Scissorhands, who subsequently torments the single mother to the point of insanity.
Overall, I can say I enjoyed the film for what it was trying to be, but I was wholly disappointed with the title character and the muddled narrative. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the concept of the Babadook and the fact that he’s a pseudo-original creature and not just some silly urban legend like in Darkness Falls, but he doesn’t really do much does after he’s unveiled. Amelia basically just gives him a stern talking to and that’s that.
This is disappointing because he starts off in a truly frightening and mysterious way as a pop-up character that looks like he’s straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While that’s fine and dandy that the illustrations and fonts in the book call to mind images of a murderous somnambulist, the film unfortunately devotes an exorbitant amount of time to building up a dud of a monster. He lives in the shadows! Just turn the fucking light on dummy!
I get it; the Babadook is an allegory for dealing with tragedy and grief, and he is meant to parallel Amelia’s decent into madness. He creeps into the back of your mind and if you give him too much attention you won’t easily be rid of him. She can’t cope with the loss of her husband or the challenges of being a single mother, so she manifests a shadow of her subconscious that drives her crazy. While that sounds clever on paper, Mr. B just comes across as an innocuous product of a child’s mind and some shallow fears.
It’s easy enough for me to harp on all the flatness of the character (pun definitely intended), but I will admit I was rooting for him the entire time. Since the mother clearly wasn’t going to backhand her kid for being so fucking annoying – and I mean ANNOYING – I’d gladly condone summoning something to scare Samuel into silence. It’ a shame though because Mr. Baba-dickhead had to go and let me down by not doing a single productive thing the entire movie. Whatever happened to folks in horror movies being so easy to kill? You have fucking knives for fingers and you couldn’t pop a damn balloon loser! More like Mr. Ba-BAD-ook. Eh? Eh? See what I did there?
Much like the Strangers in Dark City, the character of ol’ Dook Dook draws his inspiration from the visuals of German Expressionism. Director Jennifer Kent also revisits this era of film by combining noirish cinematography with narrow shots and the use of a paranoid POV gimmick. Her cinematic palette is a nightmarish chiaroscuro of muted tones and faded blues reminiscent of the era of silent horror.
Yeah, for the most part it all looks nice, but I would say the most compelling reason to see this film is for Essie Davis’ performance as Amelia. I was only mildly invested in her character, but I did find it remarkable to see the range of her performance throughout the film. In one scene she’s the embattled mother who is driven ragged by her painfully irritating son, and in the next breath she’s transformed into a monstrous stranger you want to protect the young Samuel from. Noah Wiseman as Samuel was…annoying to say the least, but I can at least appreciate the raw talent the kid brings with him.
The Bottom Line:
Is this film worth your time? If you like horror films then yes, I suppose. The Babadook shines in regards to it genuinely making you feel uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t say it’s a landmark of the genre. It’s trying too hard to hit a grand slam of symbolism and ambiguity in addition to finding its happy median between being a homage to The Shining and being something wholly original.
The kids pretty fucking annoying and Mr. Babadook is a big letdown, but there are some pretty interesting things still to be had. Just go in knowing the whole thing is an allegory for dealing with grief and you’ll leave satisfied. The whole blurring of reality thing really works here and there’s a fine line between psyche and psycho that’s kind of fun (and terrifying) to explore.
Scare Rating: Minimal
Creepiness Rating: Moderate
The Orphanage is the tale of Belén Rueda as Laura – the adopted mother of troublemaker son Simón (Roger Princep). Laura’s dream is to reopen the orphanage she grew up in and to turn it into a home for special needs children. Fernando Cayo plays the husband Carlos, and he’s basically just the resident doubting Thomas in the family (stay tuned for the punchline).
When he’s not being a slave to an overactive imagination, Simón himself is occasionally worthy of a much deserved disciplinary backhand like the before mentioned Samuel. Innocently enough, the young child still surrounds himself with several imaginary friends, but upon moving to the old orphanage, Simón finds a new invisible friend named Tomás in a nearby beachside cave. Naturally the parents don’t believe any these friends are real, and quickly dismiss his childish antics. (Get it? Doubting Thomas? Doubting Tomás? Fucking HYSTERICAL right?)
After a spat between the mother and son where his adopted status is revealed, Simón vanishes and Laura is plagued by Tomás and the other spirits in her house during her grief. They want to play games with her and send her on treasure hunts for clues as to her son’s disappearance. Laura’s story is a race against time to find Simón and solve the mysteries of the haunted orphanage before she descends into madness. If you’re looking for a good ol’ fashioned ghost story this is about as good as it gets.
Now I picked this movie as a comparison for several reasons. First and foremost The Orphanage has a LOT of similarities to Babadook and it’s clear that the latter definitely drew some inspiration from the former. Both films are overly claustrophobic for the most part, and they’re more about inducing fear rather than forcing cheap scares via loud noises and things popping out every five minutes. You can create an atmosphere of dread through the setting, lighting and soundtrack, and for the most part both films do an exceptional job with these elements.
Much like Babadook, The Orphanage is deliberate in its buildup, though it is a bit more restrained with its use of the scare side of horror. Considering the house itself is one of the creepiest aspects of the film – creaks, secrets and all – the story never panders to an audience’s expectation of reanimated corpses or bleeding walls. The gothic interiors and eerily antiquated décor serve only to enhance the hair-raising ambiance that Laura is forced to play in. It’s a lot like the 2001 film The Others, and in in a similar vein will reward your patience with an extremely unsettling séance about halfway into the film.
This is a film that has been one of my personal favorites since I saw it in theaters the better part of a decade ago, and one that has stuck with my ever since. I’m not the kind of person that is easily startled or creeped out, but there is one scene in particular that still has me on the edge of me seat gripping a pillow with every viewing. Just wait for the knocking game folks. Between that and Bioshock, I had a very restless 2007.
The Bottom Line:
Produced by the great Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage is a new celebration of an old story. Fans of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone will particularly enjoy this film since they both deal in the same subject matter – namely a haunted orphanage. It’s beautiful, spooky as hell, and there’s definitely a scene or two that will creep you the fuck out. Rueda gives an outstanding performance as Laura, and much like Amelia in Babadook, she is a character you can easily sympathize with. Her treasure hunts are sentimental, ableit frightening visits to her forgotten childhood, and her trials ultimately culminate into one of the most beautiful and poignant endings to a ghost story ever conceived.
Scare Rating: Minimal
Creepiness Rating: High
Although it will make me sound like a douchebag for taking a user suggestion and topping it with a suggestion of my own, I still have to say The Orphanage is the better contender in this case. Both films share a lot of common ground in the horror department, but Orphanage narrowly beats out the competition by upping the creepy factor.
Don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled that someone suggested The Babadook as I had always regretted not seeing it in theaters when I had the chance. Despite some of the confusing elements and its lack of a strong antagonist, it was well worth the watch.
My recommendation is to see both films (preferably back to back) since they really do complement each other. As always thanks for the suggestion dear reader, and I look forward to discovering each and every hidden gem you have to offer in the future.
(Don’t worry about any Miyazaki suggestions in the near future, Graf has something special planned this Summer)