Face-Off: The Babadook vs. The Witch

This Friday will see the wide release of HEREDITARY, a Sundance premiere that is being hailed as "the scariest movie ever"... which is a familiar story, because the same thing has happened with other horror movies in recent years, like director Jennifer Kent's 2014 Sundance premiere THE BABADOOK and director Robert Eggers' THE WITCH, a 2015 Sundance premiere. I haven't seen HEREDITARY yet, but while we wait to check that one out let's take a look back at a couple of its highly hyped predecessors.
Essie Davis turns in a fantastic and very real performance as Amelia Vanek, an overworked single mother who can't get any "me time", isn't getting enough sleep, and is stressed out to the point of a mental breakdown. For much of the movie you'll be wondering if there really is a creature called the Babadook manipulating the events in the Vanek household or if the demands of Amelia's life have pushed her over the edge. You sympathize with her at first, but as her mental state crumbles she becomes effectively unnerving and you begin to worry about what sort of terrible acts she might be capable of. Davis plays both sides of the character perfectly.
The role of 1630s teenager Thomasin was a major breakthrough for actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who has gone on to be cast in some high profile projects. It's easy to see why, as she does such a commendable job of making Thomasin an intriguing, believable character while speaking her dialogue in old English. Although Thomasin seems to be a good kid, she has to deal with the fact that her family blames her for every bad thing that happens to them while they're torn apart piece by piece by an evil being lurking in the nearby woods. It's a shame that this girl is condemned for things she's not responsible for.
In the first couple scenes of THE BABADOOK, you might expect Amelia's six-year-old son Samuel to be a pretty cool kid - he wants to do magic tricks and says he'll smash the head of any monster that tries to mess with him. He even builds his own weapon to use against monsters. But then you see that Samuel is exceptionally needy, which is understandable since his father died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital when she was in labor with him, and prone to screaming fits, which is maddening. How well you can handle watching this kid's behavior may be the deciding factor in whether you like or hate this movie, but he does get more tolerable toward the end, when we have to be concerned that Amelia might hurt him.
Thomasin's adolescent brother Caleb has struggles of his own, trying to follow in their father's religious footsteps and be a capable secondary man of the house while wrestling with these new feelings that keep drawing his gaze to his older sister's bosom. After a while, Caleb is taken out of the equation when he falls ill after an encounter with the titular character. There are two younger children as well, twins Mercy and Jonas, an active pair who have a strange fascination with the family's goat Black Phillip, always playing around him and singing songs about him. The family is so isolated, this strange behavior does make some sense. What was a farm kid supposed to do to pass the time in the 1600s but hang out with a goat?
The Babadook enters the lives of the Vaneks when Samuel finds a pop-up book on his shelf called Mister Babadook. What seems to be a cute kids' story quickly turns so scary that Amelia tears up the book and throws it out. But it shows up on their front step soon after, with more violent illustrations added in. Illustrations of Amelia doing awful things. From that point on, the Babadook seems to not only be lurking in the closets and shadows of the Vanek house, but also controlling Amelia's actions, giving her twisted hallucinations and gradually turning her mean and dangerous. Or maybe there's no Babadook, maybe Amelia has gone mad. If there is a Babadook, it's quite a nefarious creature that could turn a mother against her child.
The witch lurking in the forest makes her presence known to the audience quite early on, abducting an infant, killing it, putting its body in a butter churn, and smearing the blood all over herself and a broomstick, conducting a spell that allows her to fly on that stick. It seems the witch can also change her appearance depending on who sees her, although perhaps we see different members of a coven. The witch is usually an old hag, but when adolescent Caleb ventures out into the woods, the witch he sees is an attractive seductress. Given the character it would make sense that she's just showing him what he wants to see. The evil in this area also inhabits that goat Black Phillip, who is more than he appears to be.
For much of its first half, THE BABADOOK largely functions as a drama that allows us to get to know Amelia and Samuel, digging into their lives, showing their struggles, giving us an idea of how stressed out Amelia is. There are hints at horror to come, though, and the second half of the film fully descends into that dark, twisted horror. Amelia and Samuel rarely leave the house as they're tormented by the presence of the supernatural evil creature and Amelia's behavior spirals out of control. No matter how annoying Samuel has been, it's still troubling to watch a mother become angry and violent, and because of the dramatic stretch up front we're more invested in what's going on with the characters as things fall apart.
THE WITCH has a very unique feel to it, one that few directors, if any other than Eggers, would even be interested in capturing. Crafting what primarily plays as a serious, accurate dramatic depiction of life in the 1600s countryside isn't an idea with broad appeal, that's a personal passion sort of thing. Establishing the witch early on, the film is also able to create a dark, foreboding atmosphere. We've been shown that there's something terrible out there, living in the woods, killing infants and mutilating animals. We know it's only a matter of time before this being is going to strike again, and that knowledge keeps you on edge. This is quite a dark and uncomfortable film, and it does troubling things to its characters.
THE BABADOOK is out to disturb you more than it is out to make you jump, but you might get a jolt from it here and there. Most of these jolts come when the Babadook reveals his presence to characters rather than when he's getting under their skin and into their heads. In one scene the creature is seen crawling on Amelia's bedroom ceiling and lunging down toward her, in another it seems to be riding on top of her car, thumping on the roof. I think even the jumpiest person could probably handle these moments in stride.
Like THE BABADOOK, THE WITCH is more interested in messing with your mind that it is in startling you. There aren't that many opportunities for jumps. If anything in the movie is going to get you, it's probably going to be when Black Phillip attacks the family patriarch, as that damn goat comes charging in out of nowhere. Otherwise, you're more likely to spend the movie feeling concerned that a character is going to suffer a shocking fate than you are to be worried that something is going to suddenly come lunging across the screen.
THE BABADOOK and THE WITCH are both great films, but I enjoy them on different levels. THE BABADOOK is an engaging film that makes me care about the characters, while THE WITCH is an interesting curiosity that keeps me at arms length while I'm watching it - I don't particularly care about anyone in it, but I'm fascinated by the film's style. In the end, I find THE BABADOOK to be the better viewing experience, despite Samuel's tantrums.

I made sure to use categories in this Face-Off that could also apply to HEREDITARY, so I'm looking forward to seeing how that one will compare in these areas.

Do you also prefer THE BABADOOK, or do you think THE WITCH should have won this Face-Off? Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below. If you have suggestions for future articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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