Director: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Rating: 4 out of 5 bad books for The Babadook. This film wasn’t the scariest I’ve ever seen, as many claimed it was, but it was, indeed, very scary. Even though I went in with high expectations, the film still satisfied me immensely; it was a success regardless of whether it gave me nightmares or not. It is atmospheric, suspenseful, and dreary, and the horror comes from dread, not gore or cheap shocks. However, it takes a keen attention to detail and a particular kind of panache to pull off this kind of nuanced, delicate indie horror: Kent exhibits these qualities and displays them effortlessly here.
The Babadook— which, someone pointed out to me afterwards, can be reconfigured to roughly spell “the bad book”– is not your typical gore-fest or even your common haunting flick, but it’s pretty much unpleasant from the get-go, before anything supernatural even occurs. Amelia (Davis) is a haggard single mother, tortured by grief ever since her husband died (in a car accident, driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son). Her son, Samuel, is equally tortured by his lack of a father; he still sees monsters and even builds weapons to combat them (and to protect his beloved mother). But he is alienated from other kids as a result of these odd and aggressive behaviors, and Amelia is just as isolated from her peers due to her own inability to move forward and adequately handle her son’s erratic tendencies.
Well, before long, the demons they both battle become all too real– or perhaps, those preexisting demons allow for further negativity to enter their lives in the form of Mister Babadook, a storybook which seems to mysteriously materialize on their shelf as if beckoned or attracted by their stress and unhappiness, and which traumatizes Samuel instantly; he sees Mister Babadook everywhere and says typically creepy things to his own mother, such as “I don’t want you to die.” The scariest visceral moments of the film, sparse and expertly crafted as they are, include the guttural way “BABADOOOOK” is uttered, like a demonic whisper that upsets on a deep, physical level (something about the tone of it just made my skin prickle and crawl). Then there’s also the random appearance of roaches in a non-existent (?) hole in her wall. But those tricks never seem cheap here– they seem horrifyingly real, because everything else about the film is so grounded in gritty reality, particularly the mother-son relationship that is teased and tested throughout the film.
Davis is amazing as Amelia, especially when she is, shall we say, not herself, floating effortlessly between weepy, weak mom to crazy-killer mom– and, again, the possession sort of feeling isn’t cheapened here but rather intensified, thanks to just how subtle and seamless the buildup is, and how crucial the film’s central relationship is to the story. Her son’s obsession with monsters and with saving his mother from them comes into play perfectly when the monster is finally very much real, but it kind of makes you think whether it ever really was– one thing the Babadook says is, the more you deny me the stronger I get, and it really does seem to me like Mister Babadook was another test, a more overt manifestation maybe, of the horror that is already present in their lives, though this horror is much more human– again, the horror of losing a husband or a parent, the fear and turmoil of raising a child alone, or of being alone. The film’s ending is awesomely strange and thus all the more disturbing, and if there’s anything to be learned from the film, it’s that we cannot always eliminate that which plagues us, but we can be in control of it, but at what cost? A scary thought indeed.
This is, all in all, a chilling and unsettling horror film that, above all else, is just so expertly crafted– there wasn’t anything in here that was sloppy or lacked stylishness, care or precision. Even if it doesn’t scare you in the same way as some other films might, I’d argue that this brand of scares is a lot more deeply effective– washing over you like a cold sweat brought on by a bad memory or rather by a nightmare only half remembered, always lurking in the shadows, threatening to remind you of the horrors of your every day life.