The Babadook on Netflix Instant: Revisiting the Best (and Most Overhyped) Horror Film of 2014

The Babadook, Essie Davis
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Every couple of years, there’s that indie-horror darling that gets critics horny to affix their names to movie posters via hyperbolic soundbites. Thus was the case with The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut about a mom and son who are haunted by a scissor-handed, pop-up book character come to life.

OK, to be fair, the most hyperbolic of these critics wasn’t actually a critic. It was William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who tweeted, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK.” That’s rather lofty praise from the guy who made what everyone and their mother seem to agree is the greatest horror flick of all time. (NOTE: I disagree with you and your mothers.)

Still, this seemed to unleash an avalanche of critical praise that built the flick up to near-Blair Witch levels of hype. So when I went to go see it in theaters last year, I knew a letdown was inevitable.

But wait.

The Babadook is actually a damn good horror movie. Let me illustrate this to you with my own superlatives. …  It’s the best horror movie of 2014 (not a great year for the genre, but still); it’s one of the most emotionally compelling horror films of the past decade; and it features one of the best female lead roles in the history of the genre.

Enough quotables for you? Let’s talk about the movie…

The Babadook
Essie Davis in The Babbadook
Amelia (Essie Davis) lives with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in a creaky, barren two-flat in Nowhere, Australia. She’s a lonesome, sex-deprived widow whose husband died six years ago when he was transporting her to the delivery room.

Samuelthe reward of that tragic nightis an amateur magician who shoots other kids with darts, is prone to fits of rage, believes in the bogeyman and regularly screams like a dying hyena. In short, he’s the type of problem child that makes one feel sympathetic toward the Chinese government’s stance on population control.

parenthood, The Babadook, Noah Wiseman, Norm MacDonald

Note to self: forget about fathering children…

Samuel is also the first of several shopworn genre motifs that Babadook introduces. He’s the prescient, mommy-coddled oddball plagued by demons (see: The Sixth Sense, Insidious,The Ring, etc.). I truly look forward to the day when the creepy-kid formula is thrown out the window of horror filmmaking. In the meantime—and to Wiseman’s credit—Samuel is more of a believably tortured soul than he is Child of the Corn. (It’s actually a very strong child-acting performance; I personally have just had enough children in my goddam horror movies.)

Anyway, one day Samuel stumbles on an ominous red book called “Mr. Babadook.” Amelia hesitantly reads it to himuntil she realizes it’s basically an Edward Gorey bedtime story from the depths of hell. And thus an unspeakable evil is released.
Edward Gorey the babadook

While all this may sound incredibly sinister, it should be noted that The Babadook is not the standard jump-out-your-seat horror thriller. It’s more slow-building, high-tension psychological horror with strong emotional overtones tied to the concept of grief. What makes this formula work so incredibly is, first and foremost, the transformative work of Essie Davis.

Her beautiful-but-disheveled Amelia wears an exhaustive home life on her face, and the weight of her hellish, grief-stricken burden is beyond just palpable. Davis’ acting is the kind of stuff Oscars are made for. Unfortunately, The Babadook is an indie horror movie, and therefore unpalatable to the mild-mannered octogenarian elite who bestow such honors. (I’d venture that the late Johnny Cochrane would find it humanly fucking impossible to make a compelling argument that Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl is on par with what Davis did here.)

essie davis the babadook

Heeere’s Mommy!

It should also be mentioned that this flick is the best tale of grief in horror since The Descent (a personal horror top-five). I can’t really go into the uncanny similarities between the two films without giving much away, but I think you’ll get the gist.

Another strong point of Babadook is that despite its tendency to rely on horror tropes, the narrative and emotional undercurrent of the film are anything but formulaic or stilted. The film is about the roots of a troubled child’s dark imagination as much as it is about a mother coming to terms with hell on Earth. Narrative analogies in the form of old cartoon and movie clips played in Amelia’s home bring both wit and ominous artistic flair to the mother and son’s predicament. (In particular, digging into the annals of Georges Jean Méliès’ work to provide imagery for the titular character is a stroke of cinematic brilliance.)

Georges Jean Méliès, The Babadook

You might recognize Georges Jean Méliès’ work from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

All said, while The Babadook is by no means one of “the most terrifying films of all time,” it is a beautifully imaginative horror flick, and one that relies more heavily on acting and psychological drama than the CGI, torture porn and “jump” factors that seem to dominate much of the genre’s modern-day output.

Sure, it’s slow and has its fair share of contrivances. But while you might want more monster out of something that masquerades as a monster movie, you couldn’t ask for more out of Essie Davis, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better allegory for the pitfalls of grief in any genre.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

 

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Outback Invasion: Mystery Road and the Need for Neo-Ozploitation on Netflix Instant

outback invasion
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Australia is the new South Korea. No, that’s not the title of Jenji Kohan’s latest project about a ragtag Outback family that practices cutesy incest and quirky torture-porn revenge killings. It’s a realization I’ve come to after watching Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders, The Rover, Wolf Creek and a handful of other extremely bleak, atmospheric and depraved Aussie films.

the rover

“Time to grow up and act, Pattinson. Fuck Team Edward!”

The common threads among these titles? They’re all good—some of them really good. They all also attract the same type of viewer that took pleasure in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere… again, the list goes on.

The bottom line: If you like cinematic savagery, revenge tales, serial killer flicks and moody, thought-provoking horror mysteries that make Saw look like the slasher genre’s village idiot, then look no further than eastward (South Korea) and Down Under.

the man from nowhere

The Man from Nowhere introduces us to the increasingly popular South Korean sport of bowling with human eyes.

While I’ve already chronicled a few of the great South Korean titles on Netflix Instant, I must admit that I’ve had trouble coming up with a comparable streaming list for what some have dubbed “neo-Ozploitation“—the current wave of flicks that harken back to the blood, sex and existential bleakness that was low-budget Australian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of modern-era comparisons, the South Korean flicks are, generally, slightly superior. The other is that Netflix Instant has a strong reservoir of dark South Korean titles, but a less impressive one for the Aussies.

bush whacked

Dear Netflix: I humbly submit my pitch…

The Snowtown Murders, for example, is a more-than-decent, gruesome true-crime flick. And I’d say The Horseman, a bloody revenge tale, is even stronger than Snowtown. Both are on Netflix Instant. But neither of these stack up to heavyweights like I Saw the Devil or the Vengeance Trilogy (also on Instant). Chief among the best dark films to come out of Australia in the past decade would be Animal Kingdom, The Proposition (a Western), The Rover and Chopper. Unfortunately, none of these are available streaming. (Note: I have yet to see The Babadook or The Loved Ones, but… they aren’t on Instant either. And Wake in Fright, which would have been a great intro to this movement, just got removed.)

Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright (1971): a boozy, Ozploitation classic.

Which begs the question: What’s a poor guy who blogs about great, dark Netflix Instant movies to do when he wants to focus on Australian murder cinema?

I guess I’ll dive into a flick that was just released which, while not great, is a solid-enough addition to the canon of Australian crime cinema—as well as something that’s far less likely to be known than Snowtown or The Horseman. Then I’ll leave it up to the Redditing hordes to point and chastise me in the direction of a follow-up piece.

Oh, and as for Wolf Creek, it’s not available either. Wolf Creek 2, however, is. Now personally, I loved both of these. But there’s a certain level of campy horror you have to be into to like the Wolf Creeks. Still, if you dug the first one, Wolf Creek 2 is just as good, if not more outrageously enjoyable (and its best scene is a hilariously gory homage to Wake in Fright.)

Anyway, on to our feature presentation, and in the words of Mick Taylor…
Wolf Creek 2


 ….

Mystery Road
mystery road
Like many a recent Aussie crime flick, a mood of grim, existential pondering looms heavy throughout director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road. This is achieved largely through lingering shots of sublime Outback landscapes and the depiction of one man’s quest for justice in a lawless and corrupt culture. For the majority of the film, the seeming futility of our hero’s endeavor only adds to this bleak aura.

This recipe has been done over and again in Aussie films as of late. Why? Probably because there’s a certain intrigue to the isolated creepiness of the Outback, as well as the question of which forces will emerge victorious in situational throwbacks to the uncivilized, badlands of Spaghetti Westerns.

mystery road, clint eastwood

Clint as The Man with No Name and Aaron Pederson as Det. Jay Swan: a pair of badass, cowboy-hat-wearing loners who don’t say much.

Set in rural Queensland, Mystery Road introduces the stoic Det. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. Foul play is at hand, but because the deceased was Aboriginal, no one in “Jay-boy’s” white-bread department seems to give two shits. As Jay slowly (and I mean languorously fucking slowly) connects the dots between his family, trucker Johns, drug dealers and possible “wild super dogs,” he begins to realize that his department’s neglect of the murder goes much deeper than mere racism.

A strong supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) as a duplicitous narc, and an uncle of Jay’s (Jack Charles) who bears a striking resemblance to traditional Western depictions of that “Jesus’ dad” guy.

jack charles

Jack Charles: Australian for God.

But back to that “grim, existential crime drama” recipe. Just because it’s an intriguing one, that doesn’t mean its inclusion automatically creates an intelligent thriller. I’m sure many would use the terms “contemplative” or “meditative” to express what’s going on in Mystery Road and films like it. Of course, to others, such terms are pretentious euphemisms for “really fucking long and boring.” Personally, I’d say Mystery Road falls somewhere in between those two realms of an artfully crafted mood piece and a film that, quite honestly, doesn’t have enough to say to justify its run time of 121 minutes.

mystery road

This Stephen Shore-esque still pretty much sums up the amount of action Mystery Road delivers for the bulk of its two hours.

That said, here’s why Mystery Road works for me: When this blog first started, I talked about the idea of grim, existentialist thrillers working as a sort of relaxant for certain cinematic brains—just like the fad of ASMR. Mystery Road is exactly the kind of movie I was talking about. The pacing is slower than a crippled echidna, but I found the entire ride very satisfying. Essentially, it’s just 100 minutes of high-tension, low-action crime trance, followed by a refreshingly loud and bloody payoff. In other words, I’d argue that the climax of Mystery Road not only justifies the prolonged lull that precedes it, but that the lull itself is intriguing in its own right. Then again, it’s really only worthwhile if you’re the kind of person that gets off on that sort of trance piece…

So let’s do a quick litmus test: Did you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly divisive Only God Forgives? If so, you’ll be just fine with Mystery Road. If you didn’t like that as a mood piece (forget the narrative), you should probably steer clear of this flick—although, to its credit, the climactic scene is much more rewarding in Mystery Road. And while it doesn’t completely resolve itself, there is certainly more of a discernible story line than in Winding Refn’s feature-length karaoke video.

only god forgives

“Wanna fight? … Or would you prefer mood-lighting and an open mic?”

For another comparison’s sake, perhaps it’s best to view Mystery Road as a slightly better, artier, longform Outback rendition of an episode of Longmire. (Aaron Pederson could definitely hold his own in a cop series.)

Mystery Road doesn’t reach the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Proposition, but its certainly no disservice to the “neo-Ozploitation” fad. The only issue I have with the current state of this genre? We need more of it.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

-Sam Adams

NOTES: If you get on an Australian film kick and want to get back to some classics via DVD, also check out Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. And here’s a fantastic list of some classic Ozploitation flicks.
-Also, Noise on on Netflix Instant is a strange-but-worthwhile modern Aussie cop thriller (its big-city setting, among other factors, rendered it unrelatable to other titles in this post.)
-And lastly, I made it through this entire piece without a “shrimp on the barbie” joke. You’re welcome.