THE BABADOOK Review: You Don’t Want to Get Rid of The Babadook
The year 2014 has been terrific for independent thrillers and horror films, including some personal faves like Blue Ruin and Under the Skin (both of which will make my Best Of 2014), as well as Cheap Thrills, Lyle, and 13 Sins. Looking to add itself to that growing and very impressive list is The Babadook. This tiny horror film from Australia set Sundance on fire in January and has been lighting up the festival circuit ever since.
Six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a troubled boy who is so convinced there is a monster out to get him and his mother, it consumes his every waking thought and word, driving him to go so far as to design weapons to defeat it. This obsession, coupled with the boy’s endless hyperactive energy, takes a toll on his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis).
The oppression Amelia feels is overwhelming. She is a single parent, having lost her husband (Samuel’s father) to a car accident while en route to give birth to Samuel. The grinding routine of working thanklessly in a nursing home all day and managing her over-energized son all night takes its toll on the widow, and it all becomes that much worse when the domestic madness she feels is exacerbated by the real possibility her son has been right about that monster all along.
The Babadook is not only one of the best horror movies of 2014, it’s one of the best movies of 2014 (period), and the foundation for that statement is the screenplay, written by the film’s director, Jennifer Kent.
Aside from Samuel’s obsession with some nondescript monster, the first third of the film has nothing to do with horror. Instead, it’s an intimate study in a single mother’s descent into parental madness. Samuel is loud and shrill and a behavioral problem at school and a social problem at the playground. Family and friends want nothing to do with Amelia because they want nothing to do with Samuel. More and more Amelia becomes emotionally isolated. Night after night and day after day, Samuel deprives her of peace … of personal time … of sleep … of friends … of a life.
It’s so much to bear and yet more complicated than that. This is Kent’s genius in how she paints Amelia. It isn’t just that Samuel is THAT kid, the kid we’ve all rolled our eyes at in a restaurant or on a plane; it’s that Samuel is, in a thought process twisted by six years of pain and sleep deprivation, why Amelia’s husband is dead. Does she love her son? Of course. But there is always an underlying sense of resentment because of six years ago, and when a mother resents her own child, even the most underlying sense is palpable.
Unlike other horror movies, where so many protagonists are victims of circumstance (moving into a haunted house); victims of revenge (an evil spirit righting a past wrong); or victims of their own poor judgment (foolish teens tempting evil); Kent makes her protagonist a victim of everyday life – of a rough job and judgmental friends and a hyperactive child. At the peak of her fatigue is when Amelia is weakest. At the peak of her fatigue is when the horror starts. At the peak of her fatigue she attracts Mister Babadook.
“Mister Babadook” is the title of the scary book that finds its way onto Samuel’s bookshelf – one he can’t resist (thanks in part to the shocking red binding in an otherwise drab household). The reading of it only makes matters worse, as it gives a name and a face to the monster Samuel has obsessed about over his short life. It’s no longer imaginary; it’s a story now told.
The book could have been anything, really – a toy, a stuffed clown, a found talisman. By making it a book, though, Kent again shows her brilliance as a storyteller by tapping into that special parent/child bond – the bedtime story – and turning that parent and child into victims bound by a nightmare. It’s horror at the most personal level.
As a director, Kent – making her debut, no less! – has a terrific eye, incredible patience, and (hallelujah) an aversion to jump scares. I don’t mind the occasional jump scare, and this film actually has one (it’s deliciously effective, too), but too many modern-day horror films rely on them to give the audience a quick jolt. Not Kent. If your typical multiplex horror film is a quickie, Kent’s film is tantric with its terror.
But the superstar of the film is Davis, whose performance is staggering. She doesn’t just mope through maternal fatigue, she struggles under years of emotional wear, with every tired sigh a defeated cry for mercy and every slouch a little more weight of regret. She revs up the madness once Mister Babadook comes to town, but it’s her earlier, quieter moments that dazzle.
Small filmmakers have done a great job this year representing the horror genre and the independent film community, but there isn’t an entry out there with the depth or power of The Babadook. With this incredible tale, Jennifer Kent proves storytelling trumps all, and sometimes the greatest horror can be found in the home.