Directed by: Jennifer Kent.
Written by: Jennifer Kent.
Starring: Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Tim Purcell (The Babadook), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Chloe Hurn (Ruby).
The best horror movies do not just scare you, but tap into some sort of primal deep-seeded fear inside of you. The Babadook, which is among the best horror movies in recent years, taps into that kind of fear – it’s a movie that will be scary to everyone, but will be downright terrifying for parents. The Babadook is classically structured, and Kent directs it with precision and skill – stripping it down to its core elements, and making a claustrophobic horror film in the Roman Polanski vein (think 1965’s Repulsion of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby). The film is scary, without ever resorting to cheap jump scares or gore, but when it’s all over, is perhaps even more disturbing than we realize. This is a new horror movie classic.
The film stars Essie Davis (in a performance that deserves to be placed along those by Catherine Denueve’s and Mia Farrow’s in those two Polanski movies mentioned earlier) as Amelia – a tired, weary, single mother. Her husband died in a car accident taking her to the hospital to have their son. That’s Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now 6, who is more than a handful. He’s convinced that any number of monsters are under his bed, in his closet, etc. – and spends much of his time crafting crude, but effective, weapons to protect him and his mother from them. The problem is that the weapons cause damage to their small house – and when he brings them to school, it causes concern for the principal and the teacher. They think Samuel is disturbed, and needs special help – and they just may be right. If he isn’t battling monsters, he’s constantly bugging Amelia – and the pair of them are getting almost no sleep. It’s a testament to young Wiseman’s performance as Samuel that we at once feel sympathy for the clearly distressed child – and yet understand completely why he is driving his mother slowly insane.
Things go from bad to worse with the appearance of strange, new children’s book – entitled Mister Babadook. This book isn’t dark in the way of some great kid’s books – but truly, completely dark and horrifying – pretty much threatening the lives of the reader. The drawings are in black and white – they look kind of like Tim Burton drawings – and the title character is some sort of demon, with long, sharp finger nails, wild eyes and a top hat. Samuel becomes convinced that Mister Babadook is real – and is coming for them. And Amelia slowly starts to expect as much herself – she cannot seem to destroy the book, and she starts seeing flashes that may just be him. Then at some point, you start to feel that Amelia herself is the real danger here.
The movie is somewhat ambiguous as to what precisely the Babadook is – and remains so right up until the end of the movie, leaving it to the viewers to decide if he is a shared delusion or a real, malevolent presence (the movie provides enough hints to support either reading, really). What the movie does brilliantly is offer the audience a shifting perspective. In the first half of the movie, you feel sympathy for Amelia, as her son is a handful, she has a tough job, an uncaring sister, and pretty much nothing going right. Samuel really is that annoying – especially when, like Amelia, you have no way to escape from him (when she is given an afternoon off work to go take care of him, tellingly the movie shows us her walking around the mall and eating ice cream, instead of going to get him). But at a certain point, the movie switches gear a little – we stop feeling sorry of Amelia, and start fearing her – and feeling sorry for Samuel, who is now in an even bigger nightmare than even felt was possible.
The Babadook works as a straight ahead horror movie. Writer/director Jennifer Kent knows how to make an audience jump, but does so with more skill and intelligence than most do. The Babadook himself is a scary figure – seen in glimpses, flashes, shadows, but always disturbing and creepy. As the film progresses, Kent traps her two main characters in their small house – a mini-masterwork in creepy art direction, and uses off-kilter cinematography to increase the strangeness of the house. The film is a low budget, Australian horror film – but is more effective as movie with much more money to spend.
But what makes The Babadook is great is how it taps into something greater than just scaring the audience. The movie is an unsettling and disturbing appearance for far more reasons than just the scares in it. This is a portrait of parenting that calls to mind We Need to Talk About Kevin – both the book and the movie – and will be all the more chilling to parents, who will undoubtedly recognize a little of themselves in Amelia.