Written & Directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall. A Causeway Films and Smoking Gun Productions.
Going abroad for my horror films has really paid off. In recent years, France and Spain – and even Korea – have been my go-to countries for solid, original horror. However, several years ago, I stumbled across Wolf Creek, an Australian survival horror that ticked all the right boxes and provided a taut, thrilling ride. The home of the outback is no stranger to talented horror scribes and with The Babadook, they’ve really cemented their stamp on the genre. For a land known for its exotic locations, cheesy soap operas and laid back attitude, they really take their horror seriously.
How seriously? Well, this is only the second horror since 2000 to make me jump. I don’t scare easily, but the Babadook (an anagram of ‘A Bad Book’) had me on two separate, tense occasions. Jennifer Kent has studied her genre well. Be warned, this is sublime, but terrifying stuff.
The execution is very simple. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a lone, widowed mother to a hyperactive son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Her son is a constant, unwelcome reminder of her husband’s death, who died while transporting her to hospital to give birth. With his birthday fast approaching, her grieving is about to resurface, having never totally vanished. One night, she decides to read a bedtime story to Samuel, who chooses a mysterious book called Mr Babadook. After flicking through the pages, Amelia realizes that the book is not exactly kid-friendly, and promptly hides it. Soon after, strange things start to happen…that’s when Samuel advises her to not let Mr Babadook in…but is it really so simple?
The best horrors have an underlying message. Guilt and isolation wrack Amelia’s body and mind, both a result of her son’s existence. His unnatural, almost autistic, behavior both pushes away his friends and her only companionship, resulting in crushing isolation for them both. With only one another to reluctantly turn to, it’s a matter of time until the Babadook becomes more than a twisted fairy tale. Is the Babadook real, or a figment of Amelia’s fatigued imagination, her son’s active imagination, or a bit of both? This is the plight throughout the movie; one that draws genuine fear and scares from its darkened, emotional core.
Aside from the strained bond between son and reluctant mother, the horror on display here is top notch. Figures hiding in corners, doors opening by themselves, dark shadows moving for no reason and, my favourite, the voice of the Babadook, one that will send shivers up your spine and have you turning the lights on within seconds. The film is an ode to the horror genre, never preempting a scare with music or sound effects or revealing too much to keep you in the know. The book itself is one such plot point, some of its pages remaining empty until later in the film when it makes a surprise appearance with said pages containing new material. This scene alone is testament to the director’s future in the genre, surprising and horrifying watchers in unison, and ratcheting up the final third of the movie to almost unbearable levels.
‘If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of a Babadook,‘ is the eponymous line from the book itself. Sure, this isn’t Dr. Seuss by any stretch of the imagination, but the early book-reading scene puts you on notice early. The film is depressing and eerie, all blacks and greys and darkness. The combination of Amelia’s grief, social out casting and deniability of the Babadook itself are brewed together to create a palpable horror, one that simmers beneath the surface until the right moment. When these moments arrive, you’ll be terrified. The book is a foreshadowing of sorts, one that lays the film out for you. All you have to do it wait and see how it unravels…but you’ll still be surprised. Sleep deprivation, isolated spaces and foreboding silences all play a huge part here, catching you off-guard on several occasions. You live it with the characters, which always keeps you hooked.
Fans of classic horror will spot the education on display here. Wide shots revealing menacing darkness (Halloween), simple sound effects used to terrifying effect (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and a strained relationship that creates confusion and doubt (The Thing), Jennifer Kent shows an aptitude for the genre and breathes some freshness into the horror, ensuring the film doesn’t fall flat. The essential part of the movie though, is the cast.
Davis and Wiseman are phenomenal, both of their characters torn by emotional neglect and loss; Amelia is devastated; Samuel is too young to know just how crippling his father’s passing is to his shell-shocked mother. As a result, he doesn’t understand why his mother is so resentful and ignorant to his existence. This strained relationship is almost unbearable to watch at times, but both thespians create something special. Without this tension between them, the film might have been completely different. Fear grows by simply living their journey and being in their space, one so cramped and claustrophobic; you’re just waiting for them to turn on one another. By the time the Babadook makes its horrifying presence known, mother and son are on the proverbial and literal edge. This adds an air of menace and uncertainty to proceedings, creating a taut, nerve-shredding finale, which oozes class and terror. Unfortunately, you can sense a sequel in the making…if this film was left as a standalone, it’ll be a cult classic in no time.
A true horror film for true horror fans. If you want blood and gore, this isn’t for you. The Babadook relies on basic instincts to terrify you; a lot of the time, it’s about what isn’t there, leaving your imagination to play tricks on you. Darkened eyes, figures staring at you from the corner of a room or shadows dancing across your ceiling…the unknown that terrifies everyone. Add to that the emotional heart of the film, one of loss and grief that not only affects the characters but also skews their perception of normality. Sprinkle in a dose of supernatural horror that never outstays its welcome and you have all the ingredients for a classic film that will have people talking for years to come. I dare you to watch this with the lights off…
Watch the trailer: