Directed by Jennifer Kent
On its surface, Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook gives off vibes often reserved for contrived haunted house films that get dumped into the theater for a couple of weekends before making an Irish exit and reappearing on DVD several months later. After all, it has all the trappings of one: a large, sinister house with one too many shadows and corners; a mother burdened by grief; a young child with an overactive imagination; and a sinister specter that may or may not be the figment of a young child’s overactive imagination.
But Kent’s assured hand and preternatural ability to interweave the supernatural with the horrors of loss, grief, and abandonment has resulted in an exceedingly dark and thought-provoking thriller that will no doubt become one of the most talked about horror films of the year.
The Babadook focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a widow whose husband died almost seven years prior in a car accident while taking her to the hospital to give birth to her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Still mired in grief, Amelia has her hands full: She works a full-time job as a nurse for the elderly while dealing with Samuel, now an unruly, disobedient, and incredibly loud child whose belief in the monsters that live under his bed have become a thorn in her side and sleeping schedule.
One such monster is the Babadook, a sinister creature sporting a top hat, long claws, and a shadowy appearance originating in a children’s pop-up storybook that mysteriously appears on the bookshelf one night. Drawn in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey by illustrator Alex Juhasz, the book is destined to become a much desired piece of horror memorabilia, with a number of pop-up images guaranteed to reignite the fear of the boogeyman in all of us. As is expected, these images and the portentous nursery rhyme included within terrify Sam who, much to Amelia’s chagrin, begins to speak of the creature’s presence. Despite her claims that the Babadook is not real, Amelia’s lack of sleep and inability to control Sam’s behavior leads to her own witnessing of unsettling visions of the creature, which threatens to further break down her already crumbling psyche. Is the Babadook real? Or is it merely the result of her fractured mind?
Kent compels the audience to ask these questions by keeping it relegated to the shadows for much of the film, preferring instead to instill fear less through visceral terror and more through suggestion. You never truly see the Babadook, but neither does Amelia, who experience with the creature that haunts her son is seen through fleeting glimpses that may or may not be the side effect of sleep deprivation. While the Babadook’s full appearance is seen almost exclusively through the drawings in the book, Kent gives us just enough to remind us that what we don’t see is far more frightening than what we do see. When we do see the Babadook, it’s a quick stop-motion creation that conjures up images of the mysterious visions often seen when in the throes of sleep paralysis. In short, it’s absolutely terrifying, and indeed one of the most cleverly constructed horror antagonists in recent memory.
Coupled with a bleak color palette and equally dark set design bathed in shades of grey and black reminiscent of a persistent dream state, The Babadook is very much a “things that go bump in the night” thriller, yet one that exceeds genre expectations thanks to a powerhouse performance from Essie Davis as a mother whose sanity is tested on a daily basis. The Babadook itself may be the film’s primary draw, but it’s Davis that steals the show. She brings to the table as much fear as the Babadook does; no small feat given just how damned scary the creature actually is. She’s supported by the young Wiseman, whose wide eyes and loud mouth serve as the perfect catalyst for her eventual breakdown. He’s an utterly obnoxious child, and while it’s essential to the character, his ear-piercing screams are so frequent during the first act that you begin to empathize with Amelia’s plight.
As the film unfolded, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Brad Anderson’s Session 9. Their wildly different stories and approaches notwithstanding, the two films delve deep into the psyche of their protagonists, utilizing a seemingly supernatural presence that may or may not be real as a metaphor for the horrors of reality. I often say that reality is far more terrifying than any ghost or monster you can conjure up, but Kent treads the line between the two in a way that’s exceptionally powerful, poignant, and downright creepy. As horror fans, it is your duty to see this film as soon as you can.