Blu-ray Review: The Babadook

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The Australian import The Babadook can be taken as a psychological think-piece or as a straight-ahead monster movie. Or both. Writer-director Jennifer Kent has crafted a viable “boogeyman” story with her debut feature, but she’s also tapped into the very disturbing world of grieving and resentment. In this case, Amelia (Essie Davis) is still deeply mourning the loss of her husband nearly seven years ago. He was killed in a gruesome automobile accident while the couple was en route to the hospital. Amelia was already in labor and their son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), was born on the day his father died. Though it doesn’t trade on gore, the profoundly upsetting The Babadook arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on April 14 via Scream Factory (a division of Shout! Factory).

Amelia hasn’t celebrated any of Sam’s six birthdays on their actual date, which she continues to observe as an understandably somber anniversary. Sam speaks candidly of his father’s death, happy to fill in anyone who doesn’t already know the story. He grew up without a father and his mother hasn’t really allowed him to conceptualize his father as anything more than an abstract, distant figure. Amelia’s sister Claire (Haley McElhinney) has had enough of her sister’s perpetual mopeyness. She doesn’t much care for Sam either. He’s a hyperactive kid with an alarmingly spooked look in his eye that never seems to fade. Amelia’s dirty little secret is that she not only seems to harbor mixed feelings for her own son, she resents his very existence because of the profound loss he represents.

The more conventional gears of the plot begin to turn when Sam pulls a strange “children’s” book off the shelf for Amelia to read as a bedtime story. The thin volume, Mister Babadook, is a minimalist pop-up book whose titular character looks like something out of a Tim Burton claymation film (minus any whimsical humor). The book warns readers not to let the Babadook character into their consciousness, or he will only grow stronger. Sam is soon plagued by nightmares, but it’s Amelia who begins seeing visions of the cloaked figure everywhere she looks. And the Babadook does indeed begin to change Amelia, decidedly for the worse.

Babadook slip cover (380x212).jpgRevealing anything more would be truly unfair. Suffice it to say that director Kent keeps the chill factor turned up to ten throughout. The performances of both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are a large part of why the film so effectively gets under the skin. Davis paints a portrait of chronic depression so visceral it is practically draining to watch. And Wiseman transcends every creepy/spooked ‘horror movie kid’ cliché with a performance that rings 100% authentic. He never delivers a false-sounding line, nor even an expression or gesture that isn’t entirely convincing.

There’s nothing at all questionable about Scream Factory’s Blu-ray presentation of The Babadook. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk’s digital photography looks richly detailed here. There’s no issue with clarity and nuance even in the shadows that dominate the entire film. The real treat here, however, is the spectacularly unnerving DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. The sound design is exceptionally creative throughout the film and disorienting sound effects continually surprise and startle. The rumble of automobile noise threatens to drown out dialogue during car scenes, entirely intentional as a means to throw the viewer off balance. The thumps and scrapes heard around the haunted house are a bit more typical of the genre, but well-executed nonetheless.

The best special feature here is Jennifer Kent’s ten-minute short, Monster, which is basically a condensed version of what became The Babadook. It’s a bit weird seeing different actors playing the mom and son, but it’s interesting to note just how sure Kent was of her concept. The other substantial supplement is a full hour of “Cast and Crew Interviews.” Five shorter featurettes provide brief glimpses behind the scenes, including a little time spent with Alex Juhasz, the illustrator who created the Babadook book featured in the film.

The Blu-ray edition is housed in a very cool slipcase that is based on the cover art of the Mister Babadook book. It even opens up to reveal a cardboard pop-up of Mr. Babadook, adorned by the “If it’s in a word, or in a look” rhyme found in the book. Though The Babadook deals with subject matter that isn’t at all pleasant, it delivers its frightening ideas subtly and with significant insight.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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