– Summary –
Director : Jennifer Kent
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Cathy Adamek, Craig Behenna, Adam Morgan.
Approx Running Time : 94 Minutes
Synopsis: A mother and her young son are haunted by an evil, malevolent entity known as “the Babadook”.
What we think : Ahhh, parenting. It’s not for the faint of heart – anyone who’s ever accidentally read their kid a scary book, or let them watch a scary movie, and had to deal with the trauma of getting said child to sleep again, will attest to The Babadook’s eerie notion of unhinged regret. Set against a gloomy backdrop of depression and sorrow, and filled with as much shadow, lurking and creaking floorboards as possible, The Babadook’s terrifying simplicity and charming innocence (drawn from Noah Wieseman’s sweet performance) draw more chills and thrills than many films of similar disposition.
Don’t be scared – be terrified – of the Babadook.
Good quality horror films are as rare as rocking horse poo these days. Nobody makes good ones, although there’s no lack of trying on behalf of Hollywood’s constant pee-stream of output in this genre. Perhaps the last really good scare-fest (that I saw at least) was The Conjuring, which bucked post-millennial tradition and avoided gore and carnage in favor of genuine characters, suspense, and some really creepy menace. Points could also go to Mama, which also did well in build-up (even if the end result fell horribly flat in the denouement) and also the more cerebral Stoker, which had zero gore and went entirely the Hitchcock route instead. And if you thought any of those films were scary, allow me to introduce you to the new reigning ruler of scare-flicks, The Babadook, an Aussie-made production that, like those I’ve mentioned previously, flat-out terrifies without the use of torture-porn or gratuity – rather, it instills associative chills through character development and audience empathy for the scenario. I’m giving the game away early: The Babadook is superb.
Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) live alone in their old family home – Amelia’s husband was killed in a car accident on the way to Samuel’s birth. Still suffering depression and anxiety, Amelia reads a book to Samuel one evening about a malevolent spirit, and discovers that the so-called “Babadook” is actually real. It invades their lives, turning Amelia from a loving, frustrated mother into a psychotic, terrifying possessed woman, intent on dealing great harm to Samuel and their fractured, splintering lives together.
As an underground fan of horror and the various spin-off subgenre’s (my wife won’t watch them, and hates me watching them, so I have to sneaky sneaky when it comes to a lot of this stuff!), I’m always keen to hear about the latest “good thing” in this often head-scratching area of Hollywood’s output. Horror has a typically low-fi attitude from audiences, who see the genre as something expendable, almost junk cinema, that offers vicarious thrills at the expense of serious character or dramatic impact. As history tells us, often the best kind of horror can become iconic pop-culture material – the boundary re-setting Halloween franchise, for example, retains that sly nod of “yeah, this is stupid, but so what?” to the audience, while perhaps the most oft-told example is Rosemary’s Baby, the Polanski-helmed chiller famed for it’s lack of gore, in spite of its skin-creeping enunciation. The Babadook is an entry into this latter subgenre: it’s a deficit of gore and blood, relying instead on scares and audience manipulation, that gives The Bababdook that “iconic” feel of genre films of decades past.
I mentioned Rosemary’s Baby in order to link it (sorta) to Essie Davis’ performance here. As harried widower Amelia, Davis delivers a similarly fraught character as Mia Farrow did in Polanki’s film. Davis spends a large amount of time looking like she’s about to break out crying, as Amelia has to raise Samuel on her own, and her bland, thankless existence is enhanced by DP Radek Ladczuk’s monotone, grey-slathered cinematography. Davis’ heartbreaking solitude and emotionally calloused performance makes for fearsome viewing, as this helpless, fractured woman has to defend her family from the nightmare of the Babadook on her own. She’s aided by a truly eerie performance from Noah Wieseman, as the young Samuel, who at times looks vaguely demonic in his own small way. Wieseman looks like a mischievous imp, the kind of kid you just want to beat the shit out of but can’t because he’s tortured within himself too.
The film builds its spooky, cavernous frisson with ease. The minimal cast, the fairly threadbare production design, and a superb use of shadow and light, allow the chills to rip through this film as your expectation of scares begins to manifest as the hints and “spooky” occurrences start to amp up. Directed by Aussie actress/helmer Jennifer Kent, the film’s aesthetic is perfectly rendered for horror – its simplistic tones and crafty, depth-of-field framing, together with a razor-wire sound mix (really, this soundtrack and mix will get under your skin) combine to produce really, really effective chiller that will last with you for days. Kent’s use of framing and camerawork, most of which feels organic to the world she builds within the film, yet retains a mostly modern sensibility whereas this film’s time period setting is deliberately obscure, is almost nonchalant in its pragmatism; it’s a defiant film, challenging you to dislike it or even find issue with what transpires, and that’s thanks largely to Kent’s assured sense of pacing and tone.
Where this film differs from the majority of scare flicks on the market is that it’s smart. By that I mean it doesn’t pander to the audience. Kent’s script (which in some way feels like Fincher via Hitchcock) has almost zero fat, with nice character development building on the suspenseful idea of a “babadook” entity just waiting to “get in”. Every frame of this film feels micromanaged to wring every glimmer of hope from the story, drain all love and logic, and get the viewer into the headspace they need to be to truly frighten the shit out of them. As a viewer, I attached to Davis’ Amelia from the outset, and was willing her to succeed through this movie. Her desperation and increasing isolation from her son drive her to the brink – the addition of the Babadook is probably just the final nail in a damn big coffin of her life, and Davis sells it well. These people aren’t idiots, even the supporting cast, and while the film does skirt with making the “people who don’t believe me!” cliche a little too burdensome, but Kent wisely holds back as much as she can on the tropes.
As for the titular monster – it’s a creepy, scratchy, nails-on-chalkboard invention of skin-prickling delight, the perfect shadowy monster from which there’s no known retreat or victory. It’s an inescapable death analog (without giving the game away!) that is evocative of nothing, inflecting its own agenda within the genre as it builds towards a climax of utter terror. And I mean it – this film is downright terrifying, as helplessness gives way to a total mind-trip of evil and cruelty. Utter emotional ruin for Davis, frightened, Kubrick-creepy Wieseman’s equally helpless child victim, and potent, effective scares and chills from Kent’s taut direction ensure The Babadook is one hell of a terrific genre film. Modern horror doesn’t get much better than this.