Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell
There used to be a time when horror films were scary. But in recent years, with the Halloween season plagued by blood-bathed gorefests such as the Saw series, or frustratingly flat found-footage films like the ubiquitous Paranormal Activity franchise (next one coming March 2015… yay??), this once most notorious of genres has begun to feel like spiritless gimmick. Praise is to Bubba Ho-Tep then, as this year something wicked has arrived from Down Under.
Adapting The Babadook from her own award-winning short Monster, first-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent has intuitively subverted the standard horror conventions, shifting attention away from the eponymous monster who lurks in the shadows, and onto the characters who hide under the bed sheets. Namely, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) who continues to find herself deeply troubled by the memories of her husband’s violent death. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) adds to her woes, having convinced himself monsters are lurking under his bed and in his wardrobe. And he may be right. For one night at bedtime, Samuel asks his mother to read him a book entitled ‘Mister Babadook’. Soon enough, Samuel starts to believe that the mysterious Babadook is in their house. And worse still, so does Amelia.
With a slow, methodic pace, Kent builds an atmosphere of dread that grips tightly by the throat and mercilessly begins to suffocate you. Radek Ladczuk’s camera glides through the bare, pallid hallways of Amelia & Samuel’s house as if it were a creature; sometimes holding back and hiding in the nooks and crannies, and then suddenly moving swiftly towards the matriarch and her son with great urgency, getting so close that you can almost feel their sharp anxious breaths as they stand-up to what may or may not be there. Then, just when it’s least expected, Jed Kurzel’s jolting score jumps out.
What skulks at the heart of The Babadook though is not a monster. Kent may have crafted a tableau of horror, but her tale is one of loss and prolonged psychological trauma. Giving the film its bite are the performances. Newcomer Noah Wiseman spiritedly embodies his role. He may shout and scream like a petulant child, but his courageousness to protect his mother makes him naturally endearing, and as his wide-eyed worry continues to grow, it’s hard not to be concerned.
The soul of The Babadook however, is found in Essie Davis’ Amelia. Her growing inner turmoil, emanated through glazed eyes, pained expressions, and skittish vocal tones is quietly devastating. She is not only fighting her son’s demons, she is also battling her own.
Indeed, as Amelia’s own horrors begin to take centre stage, the monster itself becomes almost superfluous. Our own terror is amplified through Amelia & Samuel’s unhinged personalities; Mister Babadook himself is merely a cog in their story. He’s effectively ominous certainly, with a name that’s both childishly imaginative and creepily sinister, and a face that’s visually reminiscent of Dr. Caligari’s Cesare. Yet throughout he’s a more fleeting than recurring presence, and Kent appears at times to be struggling to decide what purpose Mr. Babadook himself serves. A basement set coda in particular, feels narratively misjudged.
It’s impossible to not look upon what Kent has created with admiration though. Hers is a film that seeks to unsettle you in ways that are far subtler than a simple jump scare. Though her monster may not haunt you, her characters and their story certainly will.