NZIFF Review - The Babadook
Prepare to find yourself a little scared by this new psychological horror from Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent.
Essie Davies stars as Amelia, a single mother on the edge; working by day at an old people's home and by night dealing with son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, who may make you think of Danny from The Shining) who claims to be battling monsters and is in trouble at school.
One night, Samuel chooses a book from the shelf for mom to read - the story of the Babadook, a mysterious creature that commands to be let in to the house. Traumatised by the story, Samuel's behaviour becomes worse as he believes the creature to be already here and promises to protect his mother whatever the cost.
Dismissing the story as fiction, Amelia tries to get on with life - but a series of events leads her to suspect there's a sinister truth in the story of the Babadook.....
Clearly an allegory for grief, loss and depression, The Babadook is a great psychological film that has a way of getting under your skin (for the most part).
The titular beast is a curious mix of shadows, the Gentlemen from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and something from primordial nightmares. Rarely fully displayed throughout the film (a wise move), it benefits from bringing sheer terror each time it harasses the increasingly frayed Amelia.
In among the suspenseful atmospherics and tension of The Babadook, there's plenty going on below the surface.
On the one hand, this is a story about a creeping malignancy affecting Amelia; a cumulative sense of shock seeping in after years of repressed trauma; a husband who died on the way to hospital to birth Samuel has given way to years of Amelia's withdrawal from life and connection to those around her; further fuelled by sleep deprivation from the fear of the Babadook and various things which go bump in the night around the drab house, Essie Davies is nothing short of plausibly brilliant as the harangued Amelia. With Samuel acting up, who wouldn't consider acting on their deepest darkest thoughts as the nights draw on?
It's this kind of nightmarish universal scenario that Kent has managed to bring so visually and viscerally to life as the trauma reaches fever pitch and the film delivers a crescendo of unspeakably uncomfortable moments. Aided by single fixed point shots of the house's darker spaces and a soundtrack which ratchets its way under your skin, The Babadook is set to be one of the greater modern horrors - and with its Baba-dook, dook, dook hook a great new entrant into the pantheon of urban horror legends. (And particularly the scene where the story book appears to come to life remains a visual flourish and a creative touch which impresses)
But it's sad to say that the final section brings out the usual horror tropes - from The Exorcist to every haunted house horror (via way curiously enough of Home Alone). And it's this part of the film which is the most disappointing because up until then, there's a subtlety that's as rewarding as it is uncomfortable. A little easing back on that side of things would have proved more effective than any kind of cliched moments can deliver.
It's the terror within that The Babadook so effectively mines, a reminder that the best horrors tap into fears we've long held since childhood and demons that lay dormant within. It's the power of suggestion boosted to the max which holds the key here - and with Kent tapping into most of that throughout, it's an unsettling horror that may ensure you want to sleep with the light on afterwards.
Read an interview with The Babadook director Jennifer Kent here.