The Babadook is a relentless psychological horror film. Made for a modest $2.5 million, this Australian export is about five times as scary and disturbing as its big-budget Hollywood counterparts. With most of the film taking place in the dark corners of a house, writer/director Jennifer Kent, in her feature film debut, deserves an immense amount of credit for frying our nerves without showing us much of anything.
The story concerns Amelia (Davis), a single mom haunted by the violent death of her husband some years earlier. Her son, Samuel (Wiseman), is a problem child, to say the least. He builds weapons, gets in trouble at school, and constantly talks about seeing monsters. The latter takes on a whole new meaning when Samuel has Amelia read him a book before bed entitled “The Babadook.” The title character is a monster, and the book is filled with grotesque imagery that depicts a mother losing her mind and committing murders. Samuel’s behavior becomes more erratic as he begins seeing the Babadook everywhere. Amelia writes it off as yet another figment of the troubled boy’s imagination, but the Babadook may soon be coming for her.
The first and second acts are character-driven slow burns. We really feel for Amelia and Samuel, particularly when Amelia’s friends view her as “damaged” and Samuel to be an irreconcilable troublemaker. When the Babadook’s evil takes hold, all hell breaks loose in the final half hour. Kent adds multiple layers of narrative complexity, forcing us to question whether the Babadook is a physical entity or a manifestation of Amelia’s thoughts of guilt and about her late husband’s death and the challenges of being a single mother. Kent is uncannily skilled with the camera. Each shot is some kind of dark beauty, effortlessly and smoothly taking us around this house of horrors. The atmosphere is impeccably foreboding, none more than when Amelia’s insomnia takes her to the brink of insanity. The key ingredients of atmospheric and psychological horror are done to perfection.
Essie Davis carries the film in a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding. She can be a loving mother one instant and make the switch to sinister effortlessly. She’s a force in one of the greatest horror performances ever. Noah Wiseman, in one of the better child performances of recent memory, breathes much life into the role of Samuel. There’s an air of evil engrossing this story at all times, and Davis and Wiseman are both phenomenal.
The Babadook is one of the best horror films so far this decade. Thick with atmosphere and rife with foreboding happenings, it rarely lets off the gas. The final act is a clinic on less-is-more horror, fully anchored by two fantastic actors. Under Kent’s direction, this is a flawlessly-executed film from a technical standpoint and she’ll no doubt be in demand moving forward. An absolute must-see for genre fans.
Studio: IFC Films
Length: 93 Minutes
Theatrical Release: November 28, 2014 (Internet/Limited)
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Barbara West, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney