Release Date: 24 October 2014
Running Time: 93 min
Director: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
There has been a real dearth of decent horror films in recent years. Film makers are seemingly happy enough to startle audiences with loud noises or repulse them with sickening violence without saying anything of significance in the process. Which is a shame, because like science-fiction, horror at its best is capable of exploring the human condition in ways other genres cannot. Thank whatever cloven-hooved gods are responsible for The Babadook then, because this is a smart, thoughtful chiller that gets under the skin and stays there.
Young mother Amelia (Davis) was widowed in a car crash as her husband drove her to hospital to give birth. Her son Samuel (Wiseman) is six now and possessed of a highly active imagination that brings nightmares about ghosts and monsters hiding in his bedroom. When a creepy pop-up book called Mister Babadook appears in the house, Samuel becomes obsessed with it, acting up at home and in school and wearing down his already exhausted mother. However as the screw is turned it’s not only Samuel who freaks out at every noise in the dark; Amelia starts to question whether there is a malignant force in the house.
With it’s pervasive gloom and smothering sense of dread,The Babadook is reminiscent of vintage ghost stories like The Devil’s Backbone and The Innocents, illustrious company for a film by a first time director. Aided by an expressionist style where the strange angles and interplay of shadows communicate the inner state of the characters, this is a film that harks back to a more psychologically inflected horror movie. It’s Gothic, but this is not Tim Burton. Also worthy of mention is the sound design; ebbing and flowing between diegetic and non-diegetic, taking strange detours and making sudden stops. It’s particularly effective at giving an insight into the mind of Amelia as she slowly unravels in the face of the horror.
Aiming for a certain level of ambiguity and intrigue, The Babadook lives and dies by its core performances and thankfully Essie Davis’ central performance as Amelia is fantastic. Mercurial and slippery, she’s loving but damaged by her grief; both victim and monster. She’s a real character with genuine concerns rather than a flimsy cut-out to be terrorised by spooks as is the case with most contemporary horror. As her character develops in surprising, sinister and heartbreaking ways, Davis keeps the character believable and relatable. She anchors the material in a recognisable reality even as the supernatural elements ramp up and the camerawork gets more off-kilter and Sam Raimi-esque.
The title beastie is wonderfully designed and realised on screen, a creepy lurking presence and something which lingers in the thoughts. The only blot in its pop-up copy book is that for all its chills and suffocating atmosphere there aren’t many stand-out scares in The Babadook. It could well be that this is due to the consistently high quality maintained for the movie’s running time but without any genuinely terrifying moments it falls short of being a genuine classic.
Any horror film with a title like The Babadook has to be good; otherwise it’s just a piece of fluff with a goofy title. It’s just as well then that this Australian nerve-jangler is as creepy, atmospheric and nasty as it is. With a smart script and assured direction by Jennifer Kent in her feature debut, The Babadook will leave you spooked.