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REVIEW: The Babadook

The BabadookDirected by: Jennifer Kent
Produced by: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Edited by: Simon Njoo
Cinematography by: Radek Ladczuk
Music by: Jed Kurzel
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear
Based on the short film Monster by Jennifer Kent
Year: 2014

 

It takes a lot to scare me these days when it comes to movies. Sure, some might have a lot of high tension, and others may exploit our squeamish tendencies through excessive, torturous gore (amongst other things), but when it comes to genuine terror, I can’t recall many movies that genuinely get under my skin and terrify me. The Babadook, an independent Australian film that came out of nowhere and almost immediately became a cult classic thanks to word of mouth marketing, is undoubtedly one of the most unnerving, scariest movies that I’ve seen in quite some time, from any era – and I recently saw The Exorcist for the first time.

The Babadook - Night terror

The Babadook follows a woman named Amelia and her young son, Sam, who live alone in their sparsely decorated home, next door to a kindly old woman who seems to be the only one who pays them any sympathetic attention. Amelia has spent the past six years mourning the death of her husband, Oskar, who died in a car accident that occurred while driving Amelia to the hospital while she was in labor with Sam. Now caring for their hyperactive, socially incapable son on her own while still dealing with her grief, Amelia has become estranged from both her own family and friends and drifts through her work at a hospice for the elderly. When Sam gets himself in trouble with his school, however, she’s forced to expend what little energy she has left in caring for him during the day, too.

The Babadook - Noah Wiseman, Essie Davis

One night, while trying to put him to bed, he suggests they read from a mysterious pop-up book that has shown up in his library, Mister Babadook. At first a seemingly child-friendly story about a funny monster who lives in a closet, the strange book quickly grows more unnerving, and it’s revealed that Mister Babadook is actually an insidious phantom that threatens to terrorize children and their families. Understandably disturbed by the story, and with Sam brought to tears, Amelia attempts to get rid of the book, but it proves to be easier said than done. Sam becomes obsessed with the creature, convinced it’s real and will kill his mother, and, what’s more, the book makes a return, complete with new passages aimed directly at Amelia. It’s not long before Amelia herself begins to question the reality of the Babadook herself, and the paranoia that comes with it starts to weigh on her sanity.

The Babadook - Storybook

The way that director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent unfolds her terrifying story, adapted from a short film she made years prior called Monster, is quite simply masterful. The film doesn’t hold back when it comes to baring the messy lives of her central characters, and you can honestly understand why some of the people in their lives can’t stand being around them, even if we can empathize. The film is refreshingly not content with giving simple answers. The resolution is not a clean one, but it’s also not nearly as crass as to exploit this ambiguity for the sake of a cheap final “mind-blowing” scare or, God forbid, a chance at creating some sort of Babadook franchise.

On the technical side, it portrays Amelia’s state of mind through strange imagery, subtly off kilter camerawork, and lighting so ambiguous at times that you’ll hardly know what time of day it is. It’s an impressively immersive experience. The sound design cannot be ignored, either, and brings the horror and tension to a whole new level. (Though there is one element of the sound design that may take some out of the movie: the use of an old stock sound effect that’s been used for kaiju movies and such. The explanation for this has to do with late night television, and that makes it a bit more understandable, at least in concept. In execution, however, it’s kind of distracting, particularly at the point in which the sound sample is used.)

The Babadook - Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

None of this technical work, however, would be able to carry a film if the actors weren’t any good, however. Luckily, Kent also struck gold with both of her leads. Noah Wiseman, as Sam, is a fantastic actor, particularly for his age. He straddles the line between one of those nightmarish kids who never seems to comprehend what it means to behave, and yet he also has a remarkably sad sweetness that coexists with his more off-putting qualities. It’s very obvious that he’s actually very bright, but just isn’t getting the attention he needs, and even though he misbehaves, he’s capable of very deep affection, particularly towards his mother. Too often children in movies fall on one side or the other, oftentimes unintentionally, but with Wiseman in the role of Sam, it’s very easy to understand why Amelia loves him so much and yet can’t stand being around him, all at the same time.

The Babadook - Essie Davis

It’s Essie Davis as Amelia, however, who stands out above everything else as the key to the film’s success. Amelia herself is by nature a very sweet woman who has suffered incredible misfortune and is constantly reminded of it whenever she is around her son. She’s been worn down to her wit’s end, and while she begins the film as a completely sympathetic figure, Davis skillfully maintains our empathy as Amelia’s mental state deteriorates until the point where we’re wondering if Amelia has suddenly turned into a villain. During those lapses of sanity, though – well, even though we know it’s physically the same actress, she’s unrecognizably terrifying. That this is achieved all through Davis’ performance rather than any elaborate makeup effects is a testament to the skill behind the portrayal.

The Babadook seems to remain somewhat obscure to a lot of people here in America – I’ve recommended the film several times since I first saw it to people who asked me for a recommendation and who were open to watching a horror film, and yet none of them have taken me up on that suggestion, sadly. It’s a film that certainly deserves more than its current cult classic status, as anyone interested in quality filmmaking – and not just horror films as a genre – would do well to seek out what is likely one of the best psychologically terrifying films to be released in quite some time.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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  1. October 1, 2016 at 1:28 am
  2. October 1, 2017 at 10:24 pm

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