There’s a little thing in the media called “The Time Magazine Cover Curse” — the theory goes that whenever a person finally makes it onto the cover of Time, it’s all downhill from there. In the sports world, “The Madden Cover Curse” serves the same function, as history shows that whatever NFL player is selected to be on the cover of that year’s Madden video game from EA Sports invariably has a shit season.
In the movie world, we have something similar, although it has no name — whenever a flick comes along and garners a little bit too much praise from a few too many people, it triggers a backlash. Sometimes that’s for the best — I trust by now that we’ve all figured out that Diablo Cody-scripted movies are unmitigated shit — and sometimes it’s totally unjust, as is usually the case when the hardened cadre of Tarantino-haters come crawling out of the woodwork to trash his latest effort after the first few weeks of glowing reviews have settled down a bit.
Something along those lines seems to be happening right now to Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent, whose recently-released indie horror The Babadook (which I caught on-demand via our local cable TV company because it’s not playing anywhere around here theatrically — sigh) came out of nowhere to meet with not just high praise, but delirious levels of high praise. I think the film could have survived that just fine — I know, it’s weird to talk about “surviving” a deluge of terrific press notices, please bear with me here — but what doomed it to being knocked down a peg was, I think, when no less an authority than William Friedkin said it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen since a little number he made called The Exorcist. Suddenly, the bar was set too high. Sure, Kent’s modest, low-budget production might be good, but there’s no way it could be that good.
Predictably, the claws came out. The gloves came off. The die was cast. The “haters” had themselves a new target.
In recent weeks, the IMDB score for The Babadook has been dropping like a rock as negative reviews have started to pour in — when I first checked in on it a few weeks back, it had a very respectable 8.1 rating ; now it’s down to a more modest 6.9, which, I’ll grant you, is still 6.9 points higher than any movie I’d make could ever muster for itself, but still — a clear pattern is emerging, and it’s saying “The Babadook doesn’t live up to the hype.”
Not that it ever asked for the hype, of course — I called Kent’s production a “modest” one a moment ago, and that’s exactly what it is : a tense, highly claustrophobic affair about Amelia, a tragedy-stricken single mother (played with Oscar-worthy merit by the incredible Essie Davis) who’s losing her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) to the dark corners of his richly-vivid fantasy world, and those corners are creeping in ever closer since a decidedly grim old-school (as in, “evil monsters are coming to eat you little shits”) fairy tale book called “Mister Babadook” appeared in their home.
Sam was always a precocious sort, but now things are just plain getting out of hand : his school can’t handle him, his few friends have soured on him, and he absolutely, positively, won’t shut up. Amelia’s doing her best, but any single parent can tell you that it’s a damn-near impossible job even under the best of circumstances, and soon her son’s behavior begins taking a toll on her work life, her already-barely-existent personal life, and her sanity itself.
You see, that Babadook creature he keeps going on and on about? Turns out it might just be real after all.
Kent’s refusal to clearly “nail down” what’s really happening and what isn’t for much of the film’s runtime has left some viewers and reviwers a bit unimpressed at worst and confused at best, but for my part I rather enjoyed that aspect of the proceedings : you needn’t tell me what’s real if you do a decent enough job of showing me what’s happening (or what isn’t) and letting me decide for myself. Besides, the Neil Gaiman-esque “dark fantasy”elements of the story are so nicely — and creepily —realized that, on a purely technical level, I don’t see how anyone can fault Kent’s execution here, nor the expert pacing she employs as she continuously ups the psychological ante and uses the monster as metaphor for the fear all parents harbor of not being able to understand their own flesh and blood. Honestly, all I can do is scratch my head and wonder where all the naysayers are getting their ammo.
And then it occurs to me — not only are they shooting blanks, they’re firing at the wrong target. It’s not the film itself they don’t like, but the raised expectations they had going in. Kent’s movie is as near to flawless an example of psychological horror as you’re likely to find, but it does have a few weaknesses (most notably in its criminal under-utilization of the superb actor Daniel Henshall, who’s relegated to a bit part here after blowing audiences away with his work in The Snowtown Murders), and dammit, us horror fans are always looking — and, crucially, hoping — for perfection. The Babadook isn’t without warts — and it certainly isn’t the scariest movie since The Exorcist — but it’s close enough for me, and rather than dwell on its minor faults, I choose instead to praise its numerous significant achievements.