Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Kent, this genuinely creepy Adelaide-set psychological horror/thriller was a hit at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Produced on a modest budget (less than $2 million, with about $30, 000 crowd-sourced through Kickstarter I understand) credit must go to the dedicated effort of the cast and crew. The result is technically impressive, atmospheric and emotionally fulfilling, and one of the top genre films to come out of the country in recent years.
Six years after the death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to discipline her wild six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose nightmare-fuelled, unsettling behaviour has become erratic, violent and alienating not only at home but also at his primary school.
Samuel’s birth shares a date with the death of her husband in a vehicular accident, when Amelia was en-route to the hospital. Lonely and struggling with the fatiguing pressures of single motherhood, Amelia is reminded of his passing on a daily basis and grapples with the ongoing guilt of finding her son difficult to love. She blames herself for his misbehaviour but can see no alternative to a pharmaceutical reprieve.
Samuel’s dreams are plagued by a monster he believes a hiding in his closet and under his bed. When they read a disturbing storybook called The Babadook, which inexplicably turns up at their house, Samuel is convinced that the book’s monster, Mr Babadook, is the dreaded creature he has been dreaming about. Amelia attempts to quash his fears, but soon begins to succumb to the battle of both looking after her ailing son and trying to keep hold of her job at an assisted care facility. Her sanity becomes tenuous. Are Samuel’s fears for their lives genuine? She begins to see glimpses of the creature in daylight and plagued by lack of sleep and inherent fears, starts to realise that the book’s disturbing premonitions are unavoidable.
Carried by a physically and psychologically demanding performance from the extraordinary Essie Davis (why haven’t I seen her in more films?), The Babadook is an inventive and effective blend of malevolent invader/spooky house horror with the very real and the personal. It does show a lot of its powerful hand early on but still manages to surprise and frighten consistently.
There is some grisly imagery to complement some old-school scare techniques, but the intricate sound design – minor sounds accentuated by Amelia’s paranoia and Mr. Babadook’s gurgling cry as examples – blended with Jed Kurzel’s ominous score is the most unnervingly penetrating and lingering feature.
The film’s clever pacing is instrumental in conveying Amelia’s descent into madness. The blur between her waking life and her ‘sleepwalking’ becomes indistinguishable. Scared to sleep, and risk another encounter with Mr Babadook, she stays up late watching horror classics on her television. They are seen to flicker across her face, further polluting her fraying psyche. Kent also devised a clever method of capturing Amelia’s foggy insomniac-driven consciousness.
Viewers are challenged to make up their own mind about the monster; the true meaning of its existence is elusive. Does it represent some repressed malevolence within Amelia, her grapple with the painful loss and the desire to have her husband back, even if the cost were her own son? It is a unique creation; and coupled with the film’s creaky-house setting, and the washed-out colour palette to accentuate the haze of depression clouding Amelia’s existence, makes for some terrifying scares.
Much more than a conventional haunted-house tale, The Babadook delves into grief, loss, isolation and mental illness, doubling as a creepy monster tale and a psychological magnification of the traumas associated with motherhood.
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22