*** Warning this review contains spoilers ***
I know I almost a year late to the Jennifer Kent and Essie Davis party pavilion, but I’m ready to go it alone like Will Ferrell’s ‘Frank the Tank’ to dissect the many ways that this little genre gem, The Babadook, became the most beloved international horror film of its year.
Single mother and widower Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling with insomnia as a result of her disobedient son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) acting out in the daylight hours after suffering night terrors riddled with monsters. When she discovers a children’s story, Mr Babadook, a big bad bogeyman starts to creep into their conscious time.
When you reflect upon The Exorcist, despite the sinister dread bubbling beneath the surface due to the intravenous drip (like a Fury Road blood bag) to a demon; what’s truly disturbing is watching a mother attempt to cure her daughter from something that modern medicine’s diagnoses are wholly ill-equipped to reconcile. The striking image of a mother in front of a chorus of medical professionals trying to pigeon hole a truly disturbed girl’s demonic malady into their realm of understanding makes you feel all the more helpless for Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and Regan (Linda Blair). The Exorcist though keeps you on steady footing. Despite Friedkin’s digs at medical establishment, there’s not really a point in the film that you doubt that poor Regan has picked up a nasty passenger. The Babadook pits a similarly vulnerable pair Amelia (Davis) and Samuel (Wiseman), already struggling with alienation and grief, having to contend with the supernatural; when all signs point to the stress of their situation manifesting in this continuously crazy situation. The difference though is that writer/director Jennifer Kent does an amazing job invisibly casting doubt over the reliability of our protagonist. One beautifully innocuous conversation between Amelia, her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and friends briefly reveals that at one point Amelia dabbled in writing and had tried her hand at children’s books no less. The mysterious Mr Babadook appears in Sam’s room, and they’re both (outwardly) unaware how it got there. In all the lost hours of Amelia’s uneasy, unfulfilling sleep and the tokens of a past love locked away in a literal and emotional basement; one begins to question the terrifying possibility that Amelia is the architect of their terror. It’s the minor details; earlier in the film Sam’s in the basement performing to an audience of toys and his father’s clothes, and the top hat suit combination is the very same outfit that Mr Babadook wears (in an albeit exaggerated form). Later, none more apparent than when Amelia attempts to destroy The Babadook by tearing it up and setting fire to it. After what seems to be a fulfilling deep sleep, she awakes to the delivery of the book, repaired and retooled for an even darker and specific prediction which we’re forced to endure almost to its full fruition. Regardless of whether, in the most primitive explanation, these coincidences are there for deft deception; Kent’s work would stand tall. Although, in this reviewer’s opinion Kent’s debut masterwork is all the more terrifying because as you’re imagining being Samuel and having your mother be outmatched by a ghoul that’s intent on devouring you is way less scary than your mother manifesting a ghoul because of the insomnia that you’ve caused her to inevitably consume you. The death fantasy elements harken back to the other scariest film of all time, The Shining. Except the embodiment of the force that’s attempting to consume Danny’s (Danny Lloyd)’shine’ is channelling through Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is the out matched protector.
Kent’s direction has a beauty and grace in the violence and chaos. The opening shot of the film is a ride in the glass filled ‘tumble dry’ cycle of a car rolling into oncoming traffic. As each revolution occurs you’re expecting carnage but Kent shows the restraint of a much more seasoned filmmaker, closing precisely what not to show. In scene after scene of compounding dread, she constructs scenarios that allow your imagination to amplify the terror that Amelia and Samuel are feeling. There is more than one scene where Samuel takes refuge in his mother’s bed and as they’re hearing the creaks of the house and the animalistic snarls of The Babadook veiled by the flimsy protection of a blanket takes you right back to irrational childhood nightmares where you’d swear that you’re comforter was made of kevlar. The design and interaction with Mr Babadook is slippery. At times you catch glimpses but unfortunately they could merely be windows into the dreams of Amelia. The reveals are always fleeting, guised in pits of shadow, keeping you on your toes for either of the aforementioned eventualities.
Essie Davis is a beautiful wraith. Amelia’s life is a series of service functions; floating in cycles of care, for either the elderly at her work, Barbara West’s sweet old dame Mrs. Roach or the rambunctious little Samuel. Apart from the beginning of the film, where you get to see her gain some kind of balance between work and life, she’s wilted and constantly staving off a permanent dreariness. When you see transition to be immersed by the disturbing elements of this experience; it’s bipolar. In one moment she’s charged up like a reanimated corpse and then she succumbs to emotion. It’s a wrenching, powerful performance.
Noah Wiseman’s Samuel starts the film out, as just the kind of kid that makes corporal punishment a cool idea. On the other hand, the more that you get to see his unfolding family situation he’s stuck in a destructive cycle of doing anything to get attention and feel something other than powerlessness. The darker the film gets, the more that Wiseman shines.
William Friedkin said, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” And what’s more Stephen King called The Babadook, “Deeply disturbing and highly recommended. You don’t watch it so much as experience it.”
The Babadook is scary if you’re able to accept that a ghoul is preying on a deeply fragile mother and her young son to be the devilish architect of some sacrificial perversion. The Babadook descends to the truly horrific when you begin to see it as the literary manifestation of insomniac’s murder fantasy. Is it any wonder that two of the architects behind the scariest films (The Exorcist and The Shining) have given it their stamp of approval?
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Chloe Hurn