DIR/WRI: Jennifer Kent • PRO: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere • DOP: Radek Ladczuk • ED: Simon Njoo • MUS: Jed Kurzel • DES: Alex Holmes • CAST: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight
Several years after the violent death of her husband, while he was driving her to the hospital to deliver their son, Amelia (Essie Davis) is reaching breaking point. She’s trapped in a dead-end job, she feels alone and largely isolated from society. The hole left by her husband’s death is exasperated by her son’s increasingly unacceptable behaviour; he’s attention-seeking, destructive and disobedient. More than this, he has a chronic fear of monsters living in the house and coming to get them. With the pressures of her daily life building, her son’s new fear of a mystical creature known as the Babadook and borderline insomnia, Amelia seems on the verge of a breakdown. But to make matters worse, she begins to suspect her son’s fear of this Babadook might not be in his imagination.
What’s the one thing more effective than a well-executed jump-scare? One that never pays off. This is what sets The Babadook apart from a lot of the more recent (and disappointing) mainstream horror movies, especially those from the inexplicably popular oeuvre of James Wan. From the moment things start going really wrong for the characters in Babadook, the audience is denied much in the way of respite. Even the usual horror-movie structure that clearly separates night and day, which creates some sense of relief that we’ve made it through the night, is neatly subverted through the use of some clever shots and an occasionally unreliable sense of time. It is one of the more believable and novel depictions of insomnia that a film has used and does an excellent job of carrying the tension between the various night-time encounters in a manner that makes the audience almost as perpetually tense as poor Amelia increasingly feels.
A lot of credit must be given to the sound design. The sound effects of everything from night-time terrors to everyday noises have a distinctly sharp and grating quality which is subtly intensified as the film goes on and Amelia’s descent into madness becomes ever more dramatic. In fact, as a story of spiralling madness, it is one of the more convincing and organically paced examples of such a narrative which any film, especially in this genre, has shown in recent years. Much of this is down to Davis herself.
The only fair comparison to make by the end of the film is Shelley Duvall; so complete is Davis’ portrayal of this exhausted, terrified figure as she runs screaming around a building with her child. In fact, the nod to The Shining is one of several little winks the film wants you notice as it gets near the end. They don’t intrude on the story but still, the film can’t resist making its little visual allusions to the likes of Halloween, The Exorcist and The Changeling. With a story such as this (which, like The Shining, leaves things slightly ambiguous as to the true nature of the events), there’s only so many ways you can expect it to end. Babadook does make some bold choices as it reaches its climax and the ending is certainly unexpected if a bit, well, odd. It’s especially perplexing if you’ve been paying attention and bought into the obvious alternate reading of events which the ending doesn’t comfortably fit into. Nor does it feel entirely satisfying, although truth be told if this film were to end the way the story demands to be played out, the conclusion would be rather bleak so the given ending isn’t a deal-breaker by any means.
If there’s anything resembling an issue it would be the titular monster. To the movie’s great credit, they avoid showing him as much as possible and the sequences hinting at, but never fully revealing him, are definitely the most effective. Part of the issue is the name itself, while it’s not an unconvincing-sounding children’s book name, it does sound slightly silly when said aloud. This is something the filmmakers never quite grasped and no matter how much gravel-voiced, audio-tinkering/filtering you put over it to make it sound like a being from beyond saying its own name, it still sounds stupid and veers dangerously close to dispelling the otherwise well-crafted tension.
The design of the Babadook itself feels, paradoxically, too reliant on base, archetypal fears (stranger-danger incarnate) while being simultaneously overloaded with references to his own horror-genre lineage. He’s equal parts Freddy Krueger, Papa Lazarou and Salad Fingers with a light sprinkling of the creature from Jeepers Kreepers and just a hint of Jacob’s Ladder-esque uncanny valley-ism in the movement. There’s more that could be picked apart in terms of exactly how he functions but that would veer a bit too far into spoiler territory. Suffice to say, if you know your horror, mentally cataloguing where you’ve seen almost every aspect of the Babadook before may become mildly distracting.
As I’ve said though, this is really only a minor issue as he’s not in it that much and the vast majority of the truly effective horror comes from the scenes where he’s not even present or at least, only briefly glimpsed. The film on the whole is easily the most effective and consistent horror of the year so far. While it never really tries for the ‘big scare’ moments, it maintains an exhaustingly effective atmosphere of dread and unease while telling a surprisingly emotional story of troubled parenthood and one woman’s broken life. It may lack the big, showy moments that elevated more uneven horror fair like Oculus or As Above, So Below, yet, it’s ultimately the more rewarding watch for fans of the genre and a far more rewarding text for thematic analysis in the way the best horrors of the ’60s and ’70s were. It’s as likely to thrill more casual horror audiences as it is to satisfy long-time aficionados of the genre. Given the time of year, I couldn’t recommend it more.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Babadook is released 24th October 2014