Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a tiny but perfectly formed Australian horror movie which has impressed critics across the globe. Seemingly coming from nowhere and landing rave reviews, The Babadook has proved there’s still a market for intelligent, well designed horror; it not only highlights how terrible recent horrors like Annabelle and Ouija have been, it blows such movies away, and stands up as one the best scary movies in recent memory.Amelia (Essie Davies) is a single mother who lives alone with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel’s father was killed driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, something Amelia has never quite managed to get over. She’s been raising Samuel – a creative, imaginative but socially awkward and troubled boy – alone, and the stress is starting to show. As things get worse for Samuel at school, Amelia finds herself increasingly isolated with a son she perhaps resents, and it’s in this resentment that the Babadook creeps in; starting initially as a chilling pop-up book which mysteriously appears in the house, the Babadook becomes a boogeyman figure for Samuel and a cause of stress for Amelia, who berates her son for fearing it, until it starts to become clear that the Babadook may be something all together more sinister and severe.
The Babadook is a small scale, relatively simple little horror movie but highly effective. The opening is a little slow, but Kent keeps things quiet to start; there’s no monsters for some time, just a quiet, meditative look at a family on breakdown. Kent focuses entirely on the characters, and spends time letting us care about them. This is a refreshing approach – a lot of horror movies feel they need to develop the leads to generate tension, but do so in such a dull, haphazard way as to have no impact. The Babadook has a lot more in common with The Exorcist than modern horror movies – as with Chris and Regan, we spend a long time with Amelia and Samuel at the beginning, learning about them and how their family dynamic works. Unlike The Exorcist, however, Amelia and Samuel begin with a troubled relationship; she resents her son on some level for the loss of her husband, and Samuel, without really understanding forces his love in, clambering all over Amelia in a way which feels intrusive and disgusting. There’s no maternal vibe here, just a dark, clammy and unpleasant look at a mother who is repulsed by her own son. When the movie opens, and we see Amelia pulling away from her needy son in bed, it’s clear that there’s some wedge between them, some demons to be worked out. This is not a positive family unit and Kent devotes a lot of time to building up the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, and in turn, Amelia, Samuel and the audience. We get attached, which means that when things start to turn, we feel and fear for the characters. The approach has more in common with Indie family dramas than it does horror movies, and really helps sell the feature. It crucially, doesn’t really feel like a horror movie.
It’s really for the most part, a psychological look at the breakdown of the family unit. There’s an uncomfortable quality to everything, and a sense of restrained rage and repression, for example, in the scene where Amelia is interrupted when masturbating by a clingy, attention-hungry Samuel. The Babadook itself breeds in these emotions, and wisely, Kent leaves the creature’s motives and reasoning ambiguous. It comes when the family are their weakest, and could serve as a metaphor for any number of things. For Samuel, does it represent the isolation he feels from his mother, his fears of losing her like his dad, or perhaps his confusion over her potentially taking a new lover and moving on? For Amelia, is it about depression, the death of her husband, her growing resent at her own son, or her guilt at feeling such a resentment? Is it a combination of all of these things? Notice how its outfit doubles as both her son’s magician costume, and her husband’s hat and coat set. The ending goes some way to explain the Babadook is a psychological problem which the two need to work on – ‘you can’t get rid of the Babadook’ – but the creature functions as all these ideas at once, and crucially, as with the ghosts in The Shining, is both representative of emotions and repression but also unquestionably real. It’s an issue which needs resolving, but it’s also a supernatural monster which needs vanquishing.
And what a monster it is. Mister Babadook first appears in a horrendously brilliant pop-up book – the art design is fantastic, something like Dr Seuss by way of David Lynch, with a hint of early Tim Burton – before appearing as a fleeting, glimpsed monster in the corners of the room. Kent never lets us get a good look at the thing, thankfully, but when we do see it, it makes all the right moves. Borrowing from the twitching nightmare monsters of Ringu and Jacob’s Ladder, this is a shivering, unseen creature, and one of the best designed horror monsters in recent memory. Kent uses the actual Babadook sparingly – a glimpse as it slides into the room, the fingers appearing down the fireplace, a shape in the dark. It’s a nightmare monster come to life, with Kent doing wonders with a tiny budget and fantastic sound design. We never quite see it. But we always feel it, and its presence is all over the movie. Some of the sequences involving the creature capture a sense of out and out dread not experienced in the cinema in years. Expect to see a fair few Babadook costumes next Halloween.
The film is heavy on atmosphere and very subtle, using the well-developed characters as a foundation for the scares. Not all scares come from Mister Babadook. There’s an impending sense of Amelia going off the rails throughout – we’re never sure where we stand with her and unsure how far she and Kent will go. There’s an unpleasant and nasty theme of filicide which runs throughout, very similar to The Shining, with which The Babadook shares a lot of positive similarities. The last half hour becomes increasingly tense and hopeless. The ending can be seen as slightly anti-climatic (horror climaxes are notoriously difficult to pull off) but works thematically, and the movie has earned its stripes by so late in the game. It doesn’t come to pieces like most horror movies do in the third act, which is respectable. Primarily, The Babadook gets under your skin. It stays with you after leaving the cinema.
The cinematography is beautiful which helps too – Kent not only works magic with the house, making it feel claustrophobic and dank and doing for basements what [rec] did with attics (basically making them scary again), there’s heavy use of light and dark, in a German expressionist, chiaroscuro style which means the audience is always scanning the black for movement. Kent smartly positions a hat-stand in the corner of Amelia’s room and it always catches the eye. Sound is excellent throughout, haunting like a fairytale in the score and frightening and intense in the effects.
The Babadook is also very well acted. It’s mainly a two-man show, and so it helps that both Wiseman and Davies give incredible performances. Wiseman is irritating, but he’s meant to be, and you can see how his character winds Amelia up. Living with this child would drive you insane. But crucially, he’s also sweet, misunderstood, and we care when he’s in trouble. The movie does a great job of building us against him and then making us root for him. Davies is a powerhouse. A broken, sad little shell of a woman, she becomes increasingly insidious and deranged. The switch in gears is frightening and Davies’ range across the movie is incredible. She’s certainly one to watch out for.
For a debut movie, The Babadook is intense and very well designed. One of the best horror movies of recent times, Jennifer Kent promises great things in future. It’s not just Australia’s best horror movie, it’s one of the best movies to ever come out of Australia.