The Babadook VS. Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh Ich Seh)
If you didn’t watch both films, don’t read on unless you want me to ruin the experience for you.
Ok, so both of these films were widely touted as being some of the scariest films of each respective year (2014 & 2015). They used highly effective trailers to entice horror fans, and both have been said to be genuinely scary and disturbing films. Some fans have gone so far as to say “scariest film ever.” That said, in my mind, one of these films is far superior to the other. Which do you think is the better film?
The Babadook had an excellent trailer that preyed upon our childhood fears. In it, we see a mother tucking in a child and reading him a rather dark story, Mister Babadook. The mother is surprised by the mysterious appearance of the book. The trailer shows them checking under the bed while the Mother reassures her son “nothing bad is going to happen.”
But the child knows grief, and he asks his mother if she told his dad the same thing… before his father died!
The trailer then picks up the pace and shows you almost everything that happens in the entire movie!
The film itself seems to be about grief and the characters' inability to cope with it. It succeeds because it manipulates the audience very well. We can identify with childhood fears, we can sympathize with loss and grief. Instead of lazy jump scares, we experience genuine tension and suspense. It begins to become an almost gothic-styled cousin of The Shining (1980)- where family members threaten, supernatural elements lurk, and we aren’t sure what is fabricated in the mind and what is tangible.
The film has really good cinematography that matches up well with the art director’s style and the editor’s rhythm. This is important for telling this particular story effectively, since atmosphere is everything for this film. It almost succeeds in helping us get past HOW MUCH WE HATE THE ANNOYING CHARACTERS!!!
The actors do a good job with the characters, but there’s just nothing to like about any character in the film. The kid is beyond annoying, and the mom isn’t any more likeable. The rest of the characters are stock and flat. While the trailer promised a strong child protagonist building weapons to defend his mom, the movie delivers us an insufferable caricature.
The Babadook itself, as a creature effect, is mostly successful. It's crouched in shadow, and when it moves it is stiff and unnatural. Its askew proportions are unsettling- with long fingers like Nosferatu (1922), and a distorted face like the famous creepypasta Jeff the Killer. This all works well within the neo-gothic atmosphere of the film. Unfortunately, they do resort to some overused techniques that take away from the overall effect (more on that later).
The book might be the coolest element of this film. It is amazingly illustrated in a style reminiscent of the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It is so cool, in fact, that it overshadowed the rest of the film. Would you rather have a copy of the book from the movie, or the movie itself? I’d take the book.
This is actually a smart film that is built upon primal psychological issues. It plays with our sense of who the characters are and what is actually happening. It puts vulnerable characters in danger, and we can feel the tension ourselves. It might seem like a winning film on both a psychological and visceral level…
but, it isn’t.
The movie is pastiche. We’ve seen it all done before, and better. While the trailer was evocative, the movie is tedious (e.g. "don't let it in, don't let it in, don't let it in, don't let it in"). It addresses serious concerns, but in a way that is forced and elementary. It has an amazing opening that visually informs us without spoon-feeding us exposition. However, it immediately undoes its own artistry and inventive storytelling by cramming unnecessary exposition down our throats (e.g. the kid at the grocery store explaining his daddy died when he was born).
By the end, our hopes for a great horror film are slowly let down. We miss out on a truly momentous encounter with a villain that the filmmakers allowed to be too cool. If it’s supposed to be symbolic of grief, you probably don’t want the audience identifying more with its coolness factor than with the characters we are meant to experience the grief through. It’s obvious that grief doesn’t just go away, but the confrontation that transforms a menacing presence into a basement pet happens with little moment- which leaves us feeling flat.
The film is held above water by its attempts to address meaningful issues and its technical qualities; but it succumbs to its own generic trappings. The promise is there but it is handled in the most pedestrian of ways- a shallow treatment of deep issues. After all, nothing has really happened. There are few consequences or developments, except for the poor dog. Cheap shot!
5 out of 10
Goodnight Mommy has a creepy trailer, but coming on the heels of The Babadook, it seemed almost generic and derivative. Judging purely by the trailers, it seems to be the inferior film. There’s elements of body-horror (the Mom’s mysterious surgery), there’s bug eating (hey, why not?), there’s a weird scene of the mom undressed in the woods with that stupid blurry face effect we keep seeing (this goes all the way back to Jacob’s Ladder, 1990- please let me know if there is an earlier example of this effect).
Nothing like an overdone effect to make the horror dilettantes know that what they’re watching is supposed to be creepy. The Babadook also stoops to this level of laziness (as I mentioned) with the jitter crawl on the ceiling, and staccato cuts to make its motion towards camera more jarring.
This film, like the other, examines grief and our inability to come to terms with it. It also demonstrates a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. However, this film builds its story slowly- a pace that might be too slow for some. While starting slow, it crescendos into a level of violence that sets it apart from the more atmospheric The Babadook.
The film takes place on a large and remote property owned by a semi-famous television host. She lives there with her twin sons. She has had surgery on her face and, while recovering, haunts the house; occasionally terrorizing the boys. She seems to favor one of the boys, who spend their time causing mischief. The boys begin to believe that the woman, hiding behind bandages and malice, may not be their mom after all.
The opening scenes show us a series of events that seem to suggest something has happened to one of the boys. There is a setup for a twist here, but it is so obvious that I think everyone sees it coming. This might dismay some folks, as it did me towards the beginning of the film, however this could be intentional chicanery. It’s as if we are meant to think “this is so obvious, I’ve figured it out.”
There’s a second twist setup as well. The mom might have a twin. In fact, the son is concerned that the twin has taken over his mother’s place. While we were busy congratulating ourselves that we had figured this film out, it slowly developed other intrigues. We are now dealing with a character study, and maybe not even noticing the psychological projection that is occurring. Unfortunately for the mother, we learn that she nurtured this for a while (playing along that the dead boy is still around), before becoming confrontational about the issue: one of the boys is dead.
The actors do an excellent job with a light script. Instead of clunky exposition we are treated to genuinely engaging action. As I mentioned, the film is slow, but it isn’t boring. It creeps up on you, appropriately enough, since we are watching a child’s mind slowly breaking down and his desperation snowballing. We are witnessing grief and confusion being transformed into blame and anger; then blame and anger being transformed into violence.
There are moments where you aren’t sure if what you’re seeing is real or a dream, and it’s important to separate the two in order to parse out what is going on. This is where the trailer did a terrible job. It’s as if the trailer is for some other generic horror film and not this highly original character study.
By the end we find ourselves not overly concerned that we had figured out the twist, since other questions have arisen. Our deduction of the plot twist becomes of little consequence in light of other issues.
And that’s a really distinct dividing line between the The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy: consequence. By the end of this film, we may still have questions (especially if you noticed what happened while the firefighters were distracting you), but we know that there were consequences derived directly from the characters’ actions.
The film isn’t perfect. It suffers from too few characters. The few that do enter add little to the story. There is also a dream sequence where the mom goes into the woods. This is a device meant, apparently, to make us question what is going on with the mom, but it feels out of place in this film. The real issue most people will have is how obvious the “twist” is, but there’s so much more going on that, even if the filmmakers meant for this to be genuinely surprising, it really isn’t a game changing fumble.
Others have complained about the level of violence, but I see this as an important element that works in the film’s favor. I'm not a fan of tedious torture scenes, but the struggle we see here, with the boy brutally torturing and then tenderly mending his mother, is both touching and disturbing. It feels genuine in a way that few films capture. The actions we see are indicative of the child’s psyche torturing and tearing itself apart. The suffering is transformative, the character development being shown in graphic fashion.
There’s a lot to miss in this film, and that’s a credit to how well written it is. Like a well-played hand of poker: we think we know the odds, but we find ourselves trying hard to read the face (which happens to be surgically reformed and wrapped in bandages), and we are still shocked at the consequences when we find that we were too hyper-focused on a single detail.
This is one of the best horror films of this decade. It isn’t the scariest, but it is so well played, shot, acted, and edited that it comes close to transcending its genre. The violence is poetic, not excessive as some might say. The consequences are captivating, if enigmatic. We can understand why characters are making the choices they make, even if it breaks our hearts.
8 out of 10.
The Babadook is playing a solid game of checkers, while Goodnight Mommy is setting up a Kubrick-like chess game.