Dir: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinny, Benjamin Winspear
Running Time – 92 mins.
UK Premiere: Frightfest 2014
After losing her husband to an accident on her way to give birth to her son, Amelia (Davis), struggles to cope with her demanding and difficult child, Samuel (Wiseman). Upon discovering a disturbing children’s pop-up book called ‘Mister Babadook’, strange occurrences plague their home and Samuel becomes convinced that the Babadook monster is real.
It’s an all too familiar set-up, a weird child who claims to see monsters and the doubting adults who don’t believe them until it’s too late. So how does The Babadook distinguish itself from the multitude of similar horror films? Thanks to the stunningly assured debut directorial vision of Jennifer Kent, The Babadook doesn’t so much as distinguish itself, rather, it towers above all the competition of films of the same ilk.
With a beautifully dark yet stark colour palate of greys, dull blues and of course, blacks, The Babadook takes place in an austere and bleak Australian town. This excellent establishment of a morbid reality is key to heightening the haunting blurring and ambiguity that is to come later. This flawless art style is matched by the ominous and deceptively sweet-sounding chimes of the soundtrack that add an extra spine-tingling chill to the nightmare fairytale feel of the film.
It terms of scares, The Babadook is a proud disciple of the less is more discipline. There is a constant, genuinely terrifying sense of dread from start to finish. This atmosphere is the embodiment of the feeling of being all alone in a house and yet with the sense of being watched. With nearly all the horror contained within the house, aside from a shocking sequence set in a car, the brilliant containment of the action adds to a sense of claustrophobia and no escape.
The monster itself, is a marvellous creation and made all the better for almost always being completely obscured. What the audience does see is almost solely shapes in the shadows, wonderfully evocative of early German expressionism. Just what it is or how it got there remains superbly shrouded in mystery. It could easily just be seen as an average ghoul but there’s several other ways it could be interpreted, just one of them being if it’s actually real and not a manifestation in one of the character’s minds. Certainly what is undeniable is the terrifying onomatopoeic croak it makes.
By far the scariest part of the film is the pop up book. A gross, horrifying perversion of a childhood bedtime story that is seen to almost come to life and simply cannot be gotten rid of. Much like the entire film, it is so simple and yet immaculately presented and hits home in chill-factor with deadly precision.
Strong horror performances are so often ignored in the mainstream awards, making it a pre-determined criminal act that the powerhouse of a performance of Essie Davis as the mother, Amelia, could easily be passed over. Going through a severe emotional wringer, the audience sees Davis enduring a crippling depression that consumes her completely. Kent starkly captures her feeling of total isolation by having her been visibly alienated from both her sister and work colleagues.
The cold attitude she has to her son is equally fascinating and particularly dark, certain to lose any sense of sympathy from some watchers. It can only be described as a stunning masterstroke to see her gradual character development as she goes from being a repressed waif like figure to an unhinged and forceful brute. The film wisely leaves the question of possession or madness up in the air as the real focus is on a guilt-ridden mother learning to finally come to love her son. Hauntingly moving in the best possible way.
Young newcomer, Noah Wiseman also delivers a fantastic performance that encapsulates an incredibly believable depiction of a so called ‘problem child’. What frustrates so much about most children in horror is that they’re either disgustingly adorable or just plain creepy. Wiseman is able to balance both displays of obnoxious, selfish and over-protective behaviour that are tempered by some startlingly tender moments. Fundamentally, he is a sweet boy, both smothered and shunned by his mother and who has no friends and therefore it would take a harsh soul not to feel an incredible amount of sympathy towards him. His temper tantrums and shrieking cries of “Don’t Let Him In!” are fantastically piercing and full of raw acting emotion well beyond his years. The completely authentic reactions and dynamic he has with Davis are both integral not only to the development and believability of the characters but also to making the scares and dramatic moments hit with a terribly awesome impact.
With an unexpected but refreshing ending, aside from the fantastic acting turns, the real strength of The Babadook lies in its engaging layers of substantial subtext. Packing the thrills and chills of The Others but with the heavy raw emotion of We Need To Talk About Kevin. The film is a challenging exploration of the social standard that all parents must love their children. Such a focus is certain to spark debate amongst audiences and even, it has to be said, enjoyment of the film could hinge entirely on whether or not the two main characters can be seen to be sympathetic.
A genuinely chilling thrill-fest that perfectly taps into the childhood fear of a monster in the closet. With stellar performances from the mother and son leads, this is so much more than your average bogeyman horror. Packed full of intriguing subtext and many covering your face with your hands moments, The Babadook serves as a reminder as to everything a horror film should be.