The Babadook (2014)
Dir: Jennifer Kent
Let’s get this out of the way – The Babadook is terrifying. Both the movie and the title character are so well-realized, so full of dread, that The Babadook will linger with you long after the final credits roll. It’s not just jump scares though as the psychological terror is grounded in real-world loss and has more in common with the classics of the 70’s – like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist – than many of the recent spate of horror flicks. It’s a satisfyingly nuanced tale about grief and loss that just happens to feature a storybook monster who’s all claws and darkness.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent expands upon her short film MONSTER to create the fully formed yet insular (it’s basically two leads plus the title character) world of The Babadook. Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a harried single mother raising her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) alone in small-town Australia. Her husband Oskar’s death is first alluded to and then explicitly mentioned – he perished in a car crash on the way to the hospital just before Amelia gave birth to Samuel. Each year Amelia celebrates Samuel’s birthday early as grief overtakes her and shuts down her faculties on the deathday of her late husband. This has been going on for 6 years and as Samuel’s 7th birthday approaches the same chain of events starts up again.
In the storied tradition of overwhelming odds against an overmatched heroine, many things pile up at once for Amelia. Samuel is refreshingly not a little angel, but instead a sometimes holy terror of a child who is at once precocious, mischievous and full of energy. He won’t stop talking about monsters and building weapons to battle them, breaking windows and alarming teachers in the process. Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) is little help and may actually resent her and her child. Worst of all, a mysterious pop-up book appears called The Babadook. Ominous and skin-crawlingly creepy, it reads thus: “If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a book you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” After reading it as bedtime story, Samuel is suitably terrified and unable to sleep, clinging to Amelia for dear life. She flinches at his hands around her neck, recalling traumas long past that still weigh heavily. As Samuel continues to act up he’s kicked out of school and Amelia – exhausted, alone, and close to losing her job – resorts to sedatives to calm her son and allow herself some peace. And then things get weird.
Part of the fun of a movie like this is the joy of discovery, and the situation escalates quickly after Amelia hears three late night knocks on her door announcing the presence of The Babadook. The art direction to this point is superb, but the way The Babadook is introduced is masterful. To describe too much would be a disservice to the film, but Kent uses clever framing and angles that will be familiar to horror fans to bring The Babadook in on the periphery before it becomes front and centre. It’s teeth and claws and a tophat and overcoat, and it is death come alive.
The film is ostensibly set in contemporary times, but Essie and Samuel’s large, ramshackle house is from a bygone era. It creaks and groans, full of empty spaces and a foreboding basement. The sound design is similarly stellar, as teeth chatter and muscles audibly tighten, ratcheting up tension and drawing in the viewer. Add to this the very well-designed Babadook and you have a recipe for sweat-soaked fear.
Even with its old-school attention to character and plot, the familial elements and old house of The Babadook remind me most of the recent excellent horror film The Conjuring, while the themes of overcoming loss and finding strength have a clear analogue in The Descent. With both of those strong forebears as reference points, The Babadook actually ends up surpassing them in terms of effectiveness and craft, finding depths of terror and small moments of strength in an unrelenting hell of home invasion and paranoia.
I’d be remiss not to mention how strong the main duo is. Essie Davis is sure to rocket up the list of sought-after actresses with her work here. She’s simultaneously vulnerable and strong, a modern heroine taking centre stage in a twisty tale. She has to scream and cry, be crazy and sane, be loving and brandish a knife at those closest to her. She pulls it off with ease and is a big reason for The Babadook‘s seamless world. She’s well-matched with Noah Wiseman, a preternaturally gifted young actor who plays that rarest of characters – a kid who at times can be unlikeable by design. He can be shrill or quiet, thoughtful or manic, and he throws himself into the role, contorting his body and hands and just generally being the opposite of Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace (sorry kid, we haven’t forgot).
If it’s a strong horror film you’re looking for – especially as an antidote to some of the more senselessly grim offerings – then The Babadook delivers. It also succeeds as insight into the nature of loss and how to overcome tragedy, and as a breathlessly paced horror/thriller featuring genuinely solid writing, acting and directing. The Babadook will worm its way inside you like few of its peers can – you just have to let it in first.