Starring Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman
Runtime 93 mins
You might not think to look to Australia for a horror movie, however it’s quickly becoming the place to go to if you want to be actually afraid rather than just jump out of your seat once or twice. They gave us Snowtown, Wolf Creek, and The Loved Ones. First time writer/director Jennifer Kent’s wonderfully creepy The Babadook pushes the booming Australian horror scene even further forward.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother struggling to raise her little shit of a son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after her husband/his father died in a horrific car accident seven years earlier. Sam is so terrified of the monsters under his bed that he can’t sleep, which means Amelia can’t either. His obsession with monsters is ruining their lives, made even worse after Amelia reads him a pop-up book called Mister Babadook, featuring a creature which looks like something Edward Gorey would have nightmares about. Sam becomes convinced the Babadook is coming for him – Amelia doesn’t believe him because parents are sensible.
It’s all on Davis and Wiseman to carry this movie. It’s a good job they clearly have a connection or whatever you’d prefer to call it. Both mother and son are equally emotionally damaged, and both can equally play it well – this is from a child actor and a woman who’s had bit parts but never had to carry a movie. Kent dives into the emotional relationship between the two before she puts anything too supernatural on the screen. Before you even know Mister Babadook, you wonder just how far Amelia will go to make her son behave normally. The first third is spent establishing the boundaries and dynamics of the relationship whilst slowly turning up the tension. Amelia becomes more and more frustrated, Sam more and more annoying. It’s obvious she loves her son, but she doesn’t always like him.
The horror in this ‘horror’ movie won’t make you jump out of your skin in the quiet-quiet-BANG way Annabelle works (or doesn’t). Instead, it’s all about the psychological. There’s no gore or brutal murder scenes. Jennifer Kent creeps under your skin by trapping you in the claustrophobic world mother and son find themselves in. Their house is black and grey; no one smiles, no one laughs. Instead of making you jump ten feet in the air, the tension keeps on mounting until around twenty minutes before the end of the movie when it’s all lost. When the monster is kept in the mind, the fear is constantly there. A lot of the work up to this point is done through suggesting what might happen, hinting at the Babadook’s power. When the Babadook manifests in an impressive work of stop-motion animation, all the tension is lost – it’s physical, it’s something that can be fought. A fairly standard haunted house story (vomiting black ink, demonic voices) replaces what should be the height of terror.
That’s one of several missteps. The plot can occasionally feel a little too contrived. Amelia was working on a children’s book before her husband died. Come on. It’s like being slapped in the face by an obvious connection which doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than Kent thinking it would provide a talking point about what it ‘means.’
This isn’t really about being so scared you can’t sleep for a week afterwards. It’s about telling a story of loss and grief in an original way which, despite several missteps elsewhere, The Babadook does very well. It’s ambitious, but that’s not quite matched in execution.