Nominated for Nothing: 'The Babadook'
Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. Before the ceremony, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The film: The Babadook, a scary movie about an exhausted single mom, her exhausting son, and the scariest pop-up book ever. The debut of Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook was already a minor legend among horror fans before its late November release, after the film spent 2014 tearing up the festival circuit and winning a smattering of hipper-than-Oscar awards (including a “Best First Film” award from the New York Film Critics Circle).
Why it wasn’t nominated: The Academy doesn’t necessarily ignore the horror genre. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist won some awards in their time, and The Silence of the Lambs took all the top prizes in its year. Jaws and The Sixth Sense also got plenty of nominations love—though they came gilded with huge grosses, and nothing makes a strange movie more amenable to Academy voters than financial success. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her lead role in the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery; Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both earned nominations for another Stephen King adaptation, Carrie. From that historical perspective, it’s hard to understand how there was never any awards momentum for the incredible Essie Davis—especially in a year so light on Best Actress candidates that Felicity Jones was basically nominated for being British.
But maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Academy hasn’t historically ignored the horror genre. Recently, though, scary movies have been no-shows on Oscar nomination day. You could argue that Black Swan is a horror movie—but it’s a horror movie about the specific, extremely Academy-friendly horror of Struggling To Be An Artist, set in the highbrow world of ballet and featuring a movie-star protagonist.
The Babadook ain’t Black Swan. The film’s first half-hour is practically a gritty indie family drama, with Davis pouring her heart out onscreen as struggling mom Amelia and first-time actor Noah Wiseman giving maybe the best freaky-kid performance since Danny Lloyd in The Shining. Even when things start getting weird, you might think that you’re watching a classy “subtle” horror movie, where the scares are primarily psychological. But The Babadook is also a pedal-to-the-metal, full-blown monster movie—an unabashed scarefest, complete with one of the scariest original movie monsters in a generation.
Forget for a second that we’re talking about a horror movie. Because more than anything, The Babadook is a profoundly unsettling movie. It has a lot to say about parents, children, marriage, the death of a loved one—you could argue it’s more than anything a movie about being a single mom—but it doesn’t have any easy answers. It’s unsentimental and surprising, not quite cynical but not remotely comforting either. Put it this way: By comparison, The Exorcist looks like a triumph of the human spirit.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Because it is horrifying, horrifying, horrifying. It’s remarkable that this is Kent’s first feature, because the filmmaker already has an expert grasp of tone. The first half of The Babadook is basically a horror movie about how freaky kids can be and how difficult it is to be a single parent—and somehow, Kent manages to find addictive thrills and even some dark humor in subject matter that feels more appropriate for a Mike Leigh movie.
But Kent is also an expert when it comes to straight-up horror. The “Babadook” pop-up book, the minimalist look of the monster, the quiet scares that she conjures out of things going bump in the night, the decidedly louder scares that she conjures out of things going BANG BANG BABADOOK in the night: These are all the mark of a master director. And her script is just as sharp, gradually cutting off the two leads from the outside world and transforming the finale into a three-ring circus of showdowns: mother vs. son, son vs. monster, mother vs. herself, all of it built on a foundation of desperation and madness and melancholy.
With any luck, we’ll be seeing a lot more from Kent—and from Davis, an actress with a lot of familiar titles on her IMDB (including a minor role in the Matrix sequels). And as a rule, horror films evolve into respectability gradually; thirty years after his peak, John Carpenter is just now getting his due. So long after we’ve stopped talking about the biopics that dominate this year’s Oscars, the Babadook cult will be growing, one late-night viewing at a time.
And for what it’s worth, The Babadook has already earned some serious accolades from somebody who matters: