By: Sean McLaughlin
Every few years, there are horror films that generate a lot of buzz but struggle to deliver outside of the box office numbers (Paranormal Activity and V/H/S, among others). But in that same vein, there are films that gather steam slowly and end up knocking audiences upside their collective heads with unsuspecting terror and suspense. Australian thriller The Babadook, now in theaters, falls into this envious category. First time director Jennifer Kent, making the leap from directing shorts straight to big-screen superiority, presents us with a good old-fashioned boogeyman flick that’s ripped straight out of the nightmares of children and adults alike. Reminiscent of 2013’s brilliant horror offering The Conjuring, The Babadook preys upon the standard devices of light and dark, dream and reality to force its audience to imagine more horror than it depicts. And this trick is as effective here as it was for James Wan, as Kent presents a creepy and spooky scenario that is simplistic, maddeningly methodical, and absolutely terrifying.
The children’s nighttime nursery rhyme concept has been done to death in the horror genre, but much like the found-footage niche what it really needs is a breath of fresh air. The Babadook provides this, with enough suspense and jumps to satisfy even the diehard horror geeks. In this film, both lurking monsters and the harshness of mental health issues are given equal, and interchangeable, treatment. Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis), still reeling from the death of her husband years earlier, must raise her young son by herself in a world seemingly dominated by those who appear to have their lives in order. Little Samuel (Noah Wiseman), while loyal to his mother, demonstrates instances of delusion and aggression (including one episode pushing his female cousin out of a tree-house). After coming across a book entitled “Mister Babadook” when reading Samuel a bedtime story, Amelia finds herself spiraling into a cyclone of focused hauntings and demonic imagery that seems too real to be ignored. Samuel is already aboard, having built his own arsenal of cute weaponry to defend his family. As the hauntings turn to possession, and with the authorities seriously questioning Amelia’s parenting, they must learn to keep the presence of The Babadook out of their house or it will consume them all. While it may sound like well-worn material, I can assure you that Kent employs a certain method of tension and Victorian imagery (or is that just how the houses in Australia look?) that moves this film to the top of the heap.
That’s the best adjective to describe The Babadook: creepy. It’s just creepy. You may know what’s about to happen, but knowing and being prepared are too completely different things. Amelia is crashing through the wormhole, hitting every irrational branch on the way down, and the journey becomes more and more maddening with each passing day. Losing a loved one is never easy, and suppressing that fact can certainly manifest itself in peculiar ways and can even harm those around you. But preying on every human’s rational fear of the dark as well as their irrational fear of monsters is what every single horror director aims to achieve (but very few can actually do). Here, Kent (who also wrote the screenplay) succeeds beautifully. Other films have tried to incorporate something as simple as a children’s rhyming motto, though most fail at it (such as the underachieving Dead Silence). If you don’t lay your head on your pillow after seeing The Babadook, unable to get the shrieking call “Ba Ba Dook Dook DOOK!” out of your head, then you weren’t listening. With the majority of the film taking place in their large, but largely empty, house, an uneasy sense of isolation and claustrophobia pervades throughout. This was done on purpose, and it is absolutely brilliant. Amelia, Samuel and Mister Babadook are the three main characters, and are on screen together nearly the entire time. Even when The Babadook is not seen, his influence is hard to miss.
While portraying a grieving mother is never easy, Davis hits a cinematic home run worthy of Oscar consideration. I realize that would never happen, but for a horror film I can’t remember a more brutal performance of someone descending into lunacy so quickly. Wiseman’s Samuel has his problems, but being a misunderstood weirdo can be pulled off (Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, for instance). You are on the roller coaster along with Amelia, experiencing the terror and bewilderment just as she does. You will also find yourself both rooting for her survival and anticipating her demise, unsure which side of the fence to peer in from. Denial (like medication) can battle to keep your innermost manifestations down deep but eventually they find a way out. With a benevolent demon loose in your house, threatening to destroy your family, this can actually be a benefit as well as a hindrance. The acting in The Babadook adds to its charm, and the cast plays well to the strengths (and weaknesses) of their characters.
It’s late in the year, and Australia has brought us a candidate for best horror film for 2014 just under the wire. The Babadook is creepy, methodical, suspenseful, but most of all….good. You’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting blood and gore, because this film preys more on that psychological level that scared us as kids and sometimes continues to as adults. The Babadook is an amazing first effort by Kent, features a competent cast, and will probably cause you to lose some sleep. What more can we ask for? Run out and see this movie, as soon as you can.