“Part scarecrow, part German Expressionist ghoul; The Babadook is a deliciously rich nightmare.”
by Matt Allen
Cast: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Noah Wiseman
Director(s): Jennifer Kent
Screenwriter(s): Jennifer Kent
Running Time: 94 minutes
It’s clear from recent releases such as Oculus (read our review here) that horror is finally being taken seriously again. After the parade of popcorn horrors made for a general public who are satisfied with loud noises and cheap scares, we’re finally being given atmospheric chillers that stay with you after lights out.
After her husband is killed driving her to hospital during labour, Amelia (Davis) is left to raise her oddball son (Henshall) alone. Years later, still haunted by the accident, the appearance of a sinister children’s book unleashes a malevolent force bent on murder.
A well-written horror film can do more to genuinely terrify you than a collection of strategically timed loud noises and ghostly women moving disjointedly through the shadows ever could. The Babadook is a prime example of this, choosing the high road and delivering the scares in a far more cerebral manner than the majority of its contemporaries. The atmosphere is built slowly and solidly. The tension is delicately cultivated. The sense of terror is planted in the audience and left to lay all but undetected until the time is right when it is let off like a dirty bomb. The result is a harrowing journey that delves into the darkest corners of a damaged soul.
The sheer impact of this story is largely aided by a fierce performance from Davis, as Amelia, a single mother battling to raise her ‘disobedient’ son alone. Samuel is a difficult child who, as well as sapping the life from his long suffering mother, manages to repel everyone in his life, including his own aunt. The first half of the film goes out of its way to to establish the extent of Amelia’s struggle, ensuring that the exhausting task of raising this kid is fully appreciated. In fact, by the time Amelia turns to infanticide, we’re almost cheering her on.
What’s most impressive is the subtlety of the script. Kent shows the utmost respect for her audience and refrains from spoon-feeding explanations allowing us to come to our own conclusions about Mister Babadook. Masterful touches such as the jarring disappearance of a potential suitor, never to be seen again following an outburst from Samuel, or the complete absence of men/boys at a birthday party denotes a very deliberate script that has meaning woven into every scene.
The only criticism might be that the Babadook itself gets very little screen time. All the more a pity for the fact that the design – part scarecrow, part German Expressionist ghoul modelled after the likes found in seminal horrors of the 1920s – is a deliciously rich nightmare. While it is clear that the film makes a point of obscuring any sighting of the monster, it lacks that irrepressible image that lingers, etched to your eyelids, sure to creep into your mind in the small hours of the night.
A horror film done properly – chilling, distressing and downright terrifying. The Babadook taps into the most spiteful parts of the psyche and manifests them in one of the creepiest films of the decade.