“It wants to scare you first and then you’ll see it.”
How is it possible for such a low-budget, lo-fi horror story to be one of the most chilling and emotionally draining experiences you’ll have at the movies this year? Probably because it’s flawlessly executed and constantly foreboding. Most would label this a “scary movie”, which it isn’t, not in the common vernacular. The Babadook is a darkly dramatic tale of parenting and childhood that’s filled with as must dread and panic as you could imagine. Few movies this year have been better, and none have induced such nightmarish anxiety. Actual instances of terror can leave you paralyzed, and that’s just how you’ll feel. Get ready for the goose bumps.
Amelia (Essie Davis), a sleep-deprived and traumatized Australian orderly, is the widowed mother to Sam (newcomer Noah Wiseman). The father died en route to the hospital for his birth. Sam’s a bit of a nuisance, a problem child whose antics and constant shrieking snowball into worse and worse behavioral problems. He swears it’s not him causing the problems, that the monster he keeps seeing is responsible. Is he telling the truth or is he just the boy who cried wolf? It’s puzzling from the onset. And his character, although a child, gets so under you skin that you’ll be annoyed. That’s the whole point.
Sam picks a random book off the shelf for his bedtime story. Instead of the classic fairy tales, the blood-red binding belongs to the pop-up book Mister Babadook. It’s harmless and friendly to start before things turn unnerving and gruesome. The Babadook, with his white face, black top hat and jacket, and long clawed hands is omnipresent. Sam vows to protect his mother, going so far as setting booby traps and toting makeshift weapons, because once you let him in, you can’t get rid of him. Through the book the Babadook tells us, and them, his monstrous intent. We’re left wondering if it’ll come to fruition.
What a debut by writer/director Jennifer Kent. She takes the most intimate, in camera approach she could have, and it pays such great dividends. Her shots are symmetrical, show great composition, and are always uniquely lit. Paired with the top-notch sound mixing and the Babadook’s unsettling theme music, we sense the imminent grim all along. This story world is very small and so is the cast, but Kent is able to get so much out of her leading lady Essie Davis. She’s a sexually frustrated and love-deprived woman who just wants a little peace and quiet, just a bit of good night’s rest. That’s impossible with Sam. Her controlled temper becomes unhinged, and just like her son, we wonder whether or not she’s really to blame. I can’t remember the last time I saw a truly frightening movie with such a layered and meaningful story.
A lot of people will be left wondering…is the Babadook real? Is it actually a spirit besetting her, a lurking hellish presence always around the corner? Yeah, it might be. But just like the classic bedtime stories read early on in the film, the Babadook is a parable. We all have our own inner demons scratching at the scathing surface. It’s a clear allegory. Either we live by their rules or they abide by ours. The story rarely settles for the cheap thrills or jumpy scares and instead is as smart and intellectual as it is unequivocally petrifying. Before the last act I wrote in my notes, “I have no idea how this is going to end.” Never would I have guessed how it does. For a genre so defined by consistent convention, The Babadook is a haunting and welcome distress signal.
“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Rating: 4 out of 5