The Babadook (****)
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Running Time 94 minutes
Starring – Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall and Hayley McElhimney
A single Mother, distraught by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her and starts thinking her son may not be wrong about the Babadook after all.
HORROR fans looking for something more substantial from their trip to the cinema over the Halloween period should look no further than Jennifer Kent’s chilling feature The Babadook. Unlike many other recent entries within an increasingly formulaic genre, Kent’s feature bucks the trend by not just trying to make viewers jump, but leave them with a chilling sense of dread.
Written and directed by the Australian filmmaker and shot on a modest budget, the director returns to an idea she originally conceived for a short in 2005. Unlike Andrés Muschietti’s underwhelming 2013 feature Mama, the switch from short to full blown feature is a successful one, with a screenplay that takes the simple idea a child’s fear of what’s lurking under the bed and masterfully stretches it out to terrifying effect.
The plot focuses on widowed single-mother Amelia (Davis), who is struggling to cope with her increasingly unruly six-year-old son Samuel (Wiseman) and his obsession with monsters. After accidently reading him a deeply disturbing popup book that mysteriously turns up in their home, Samuel starts to believe that a creature called the Babadook is lurking within their home. Initially dismissing her son’s claims as nothing more than his overactive imagination Amelia slowly comes to share Samuel’s fears that they are being stalked by a nightmarish presence.
Both Davis and Wiseman give fantastically strong central performances in their respective roles, with Davis in particular outstanding as a woman battling her own inner demons. She is haunted by the memoires of the violent death of her husband on the day Samuel was born, the manner of his passing complicating the relationship between mother and son.
Some viewers might find Samuel’s character deeply unlikeable, he’s an unruly precocious child that needs his mother’s love and attention, but his issues and complexities are vital aspects within the feature’s narrative. Much of the film’s terror comes from the uncertainty as to whether Amelia can overcome her own demons to save herself and her son from the Babadook.
With nods to The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street and even The Shining, the director displays a fantastic level of cine literacy for the genre throughout the feature. By using practical horror effects rather than CGI the character has a genuinely menacing physical presence, lurking in the darkness and cloaked in shadows his appearance evokes memories of Freddy Krueger and Max Schreck’s Count Orlok from Nosferatu.
There’s a real edgy and nasty tone running throughout the feature that’s wonderfully complimented by Radek Ladczuk’s bleak and gloomy visuals. Unlike many other recently released horror films Kent’s feature doesn’t sell itself cheaply by primarily trying to make viewers jump, instead it slowly ramps up the tension with gut wrenching effect as it builds towards a tense and claustrophobic finale.
While many critics have praised the psychological aspects of Kent’s feature, much like Wes Craven’s Scream it’s a horror film that works on many levels. Yes there are chilling aspects of this feature that explore the complicated nature of Amelia’s troubled psyche, but viewers should be under no illusion because this is a deeply unsettling monster movie that unfolds like a pitch-black fairy tale.
The Babadook doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel within the genre, there are aspect of this film that have been repeatedly played out over and over across many different horror features, but it’s presented in a stylish and accompanied manner and deserves to be seen on the big-screen. The ghoulish pop-up book Amelia reads her son, a twisted mix of Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss is worth the price of admission alone.
Review by William McClean