If Dr. Seuss worshiped Satan, this is what you’d be reading to your kids at night. Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman and Hayley McElhinney star in The Babadook.
Director – Jennifer Kent
Screenplay – Jennifer Kent
Producer – Kristina Ceyton & Kristian Moliere
Since the death of her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear) while driving her to the hospital to give birth, Amelia (Essie Davis) has raised her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) alone. Samuel has quite the imagination, preoccupying himself with magic tricks, bedtime stories and homemade weapons he’s created to fight imaginary monsters. His imaginations run too wild, though, leading to ongoing behavioral problems at school, which Amelia is forced to take him out of.
After reading a book called The Babadook before bed, Samuel’s imaginations once again get the best of him, as he believes the creature from the story is stalking him and his mother. Amelia tries to convince him that it’s just a story, but soon the lines between what’s real and what isn’t begin to blur even for her.
Most horror films we get today are crap, but there are certain exceptions that are very well done. Oculus, for example, was a pleasant surprise for me this year. Even more rare than those exceptions are the horror films that fall into the “This is the best since…” category. The most recent one would be the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In. Before that, it was 2005’s The Descent. After six years, I can say The Babadook is the best horror film I’ve seen since Tomas Alfredson’s vampire film.
Written and directed by actress-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Kent, in her feature-length debut, The Babadook, aside from a few third-act trapping nitpicks, is a near-perfect psychological horror-thriller. Through an effective use of restraint, Kent avoids the cheap tricks and delivers scares that are genuinely unsettling. Not to say there aren’t any frights ’cause there most certainly are, but this is slow, nail-biting tension that earns every hair it gets to rise on the back of our necks. Yes, she gives us a monster, but one seen mostly from back in the shadows, leaving the rest to our imagination. Moving things at just the right pace and with a little help from Radek Ladczuk’s hauntingly grim cinematography, simple things that haunted us as a child like what might be lurking under the bed or in the closet find a way to get under our skin again.
It’s a strong sign of talent for someone to take something childlike and innocent as a popup book and turn it into something truly disturbing.
While this could be considered a creature horror film, Kent brings something deeper than just a token monster to the table. Without going into spoilers, this film explores areas of coping with grief, depression, the hardships of single motherhood and the tragedy of loss that give these characters an extra dimension. It then begs the question: Is the Babadook real, or is it a manifestation of Amelia’s inability to let go of the past that haunts her, a demon she finds much more difficult to extinguish?
Bringing these themes to such heartbreaking life are Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in two terrific performances. Mostly known for her work on TV, Davis is a revelation here, never once showing a false note in portraying the emotionally fragile widow who’s trying desperately to move on from her husband’s tragic death. Wiseman is equally strong and shares a believable mother-son bond with Davis. It’s also credit to Wiseman’s talent as a child actor that during the first half of the film he’s an annoying little prick, but over time circumstances arise that gradually allows him to win us over without the need to force it.
Driven by a fantastic performance from Essie Davis and sharp direction from Jennifer Kent, in a strong debut that has me looking forward to more from her, The Babadook easily finds a way to unnerve its viewers without the need to jump out at them in cheap fashion. Although this is a horror film through and through, thanks to Kent’s writing, which offers deeper themes within a heartfelt story, it elevates above being just a standard genre flick. This is the best horror film I’ve seen in years.
I give The Babadook an A (★★★½).