Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, and Tim Purcell.
The nearest point of comparison to The Babadook is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in that both are horror films which begins as films about a frightened, psychotic child then transitions to a film about a frightened, psychotic parent. I have seen a few critics call The Babadook superior to The Shining, and while I understand the reasoning behind that claim, (the transition from child to parent focus is more subtle and unnerving) I’m not sure I can go quite that far, although a second viewing may change my mind. However, I will give The Babadook this: it’s scarier than The Shining.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, whose husband died nearly seven years ago as he was driving her to the hospital to deliver Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia has never really accepted her husband’s passing, and while she occasionally visits her sister and stops to chat with her kind elderly neighbor, she has mostly shut herself and Sam alone in their house, with their main outside interactions being work and school.
Sam naturally does not fit in at school or among his peers. He is obsessed with monsters and loves telling stories that disturb not only other children but their parents as well. His favorite hobby is building weapons to fight the monsters. He smuggles those weapons to school in his backpack, and some of them would be extremely dangerous and painful if employed against a child. Amelia responds to the school’s concern by promising to have a serious talk with Sam, and when they suggest psychotic evaluation, she pulls him out of school with plans to find another one.
The setup is perfect for a horror film. Sam’s bratty behavior and obsession with outlandish tales of monsters make it so that almost no one would believe him if he really were in danger. Amelia’s desire to keep up appearances of normalcy, even as she increasingly isolates herself and her son so no one knows of their troubles, makes her foolish decisions believable and prevents any of them from being clichéd, stupid horror film choices, even when she copies one of Jack Torrence’s reckless actions in The Shining. Noah Wiseman is terrific at portraying a the terror of a child who *knows* that he and his mother are in danger from the monsters in the basement or in the closet as well as the determination of a child to protect himself and his mother. As Amelia, Essie Davis fluctuates perfectly among a deeply concerned mother, a neglectful and barely coping parent who expects her child just to behave on his own, and a mother exasperated by her son’s disobedient behavior.
The source of the horror stems from the tension between mother and son and the way it undermines the love that both of them ultimately have for one another. The Babadook is a character in a morbid children’s popup book, and it first appears when Amelia reads the book to Samuel before bedtime, unaware of the gruesome nature of the story. What was an effort for mother and son to bond gives birth to the thing that threatens to destroy them. When Sam begins insisting that he can see the Babadook and that they are in great danger from the monster which it is impossible to get rid of, the strain of such claims begins an escalation of sleepless nights, anger, resentment, and threats of violence which would be unsettling without the aid of a demonic presence. With the possibility of some unknown monster, it’s terrifying.
First time feature film director Jennifer Kent makes two great choices. She eschews trumped up special effects and gore, and creates an atmosphere of dread though suspense and suggestion, which she heightens with brilliant editing. Whenever a character is in jeopardy or frightened, the camera cuts to the next scene right before the resolution, leaving the outcome uncertain and starting a new conflict before the viewer can fully relax from the previous one. Kent also wisely avoids portraying the Babadook as a traditional scary monster which would make the audience jump on first sight, but then calmly sigh (and laugh) once they had seen it. I won’t spoil the minimalistic appearance, but it assists the menacing atmosphere of the film.
If I have any complaint at all about The Babadook, it is this: about an hour in I said to myself, “If this is going where I think it is, it’s going to need a twist.” It went where I thought, and it did have a twist, but I will need a second viewing to determine whether the twist is strong enough to work. I am inclined to say it is, because it cleverly ties together two earlier themes, and it reminds the viewer that:
Once you invite him in by reading his book,
There’s no getting rid of the Babadook.
Content Advisory: Much terror throughout, deeply disturbing scenes of violence between a parent and child, off-camera masturbation, and occasional rough language. Not rated; would be R.
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A