Jennifer Kent’s nerve jangling feature debut is the most textured, exiting and surprising horror movie of recent years; an expressionistic psychological odyssey rich in metaphor, humour and the sound of things going bump, bump, bump in the night.
Written & Directed by Jennifer Kent / Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Benjamin Winspear, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West / Cinematography by Radek Ladczuk / Music by Simon Njoo / Production by Causeway Films
Beginning in the space between a dream and a memory and rapidly expanding both realms to occupy the real world, Australian television director Jennifer Kent’s Gothic fable follows Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Sam (Noah Wiseman) as they navigate a strained, broken family existence and an awkward social life in the lead up to the morbid six-year-old Sam’s birthday. Causing his mother embarrassment and anguish at every turn, Sam never fails to inform total strangers that his birthday is the anniversary of his father’s death. Killed in a car crash as he was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, Oskar’s (Benjamin Winspear) death hangs spectre-like over Amelia and Sam’s lives. Aggressive and precocious, Sam delights in inventing contraptions to kill the imagined monsters that lurk in his closet and under his bed. When Sam is excluded from school for bringing a homemade crossbow to class, Amelia’s resentment of her son’s existence bubbles to the surface, not coincidentally at the same time that a mysterious children’s pop-up book appears in the house. Telling the story of a funny, creepy shadow-like thing, called the Babadook, the book becomes more graphic and more threatening with each read until Amelia and Sam find that the fictional ghoul of the story lives not just on the page but also in the shadows of their eerie Victorian terrace house.
Every actor and crewmember here involved turns out a peak performance, making The Babadook a joy to behold in spite of the constant shivers that run up and down the spine. Essie Davis’ portrayal of Amelia as a woman at the end of her tether is raw, versatile and sympathetic no matter how dark the places her character goes to. Amelia is not merely a last-girl-style scream queen; she is a deeply complex human being holding herself and her son prisoner in a living nightmare. Drawing from the Gothic horror tradition, Italian giallo cinema and the filmography of David Lynch, Jennifer Kent and her crew portray Amelia and Sam’s home as a silent limbo pregnant with menace. Cinematographer Radek Ludczuk, production designer Alex Holmes and art director Karen Hannaford engineer a distinct blue-grey colour palette that is all the more unsettling and creepy for the way that it passively separates itself from the untainted whites of Amelia’s wardrobe and her thick blonde hair. Without gels on the lights or filters on the lens Kent’s crew creates a washed out world in the vein of a painting by James McNeill Whistler. Here the daily activities of domestic life occur but never seem to achieve any kind of normalcy. The remarkable synergy with which the art department works to shape the film’s cinematography is beguiling, engrossing and methodically akin to the approach of silent-era filmmakers shooting in black and white, rather than today’s overly post-processed horrors. But nowhere is Jennifer Kent’s use of in-camera design and visual effects more memorable than the Babadook itself. Ripped from a thousand childhood nightmares, the Babadook is as distinctive and evocative as any famous character from a children’s storybook, and as haunting and carefully distilled into solid form as the popular villains of the American slasher genre. Like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, the Babadook is instantly recognisable even in silhouette and its guttural call is so infectious that viewers shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves weeks afterwards still muttering, “Ba-ba-dooook-dooook-DOOOOOOK!”
Battling the insidious influence of the Babadook, Amelia and Sam never lose their credibility as ordinary people; teetering on the brink of the abyss, desperately trying to claw their way back to the world without losing the things that mean the most to them. The contribution that Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman make to the quality of the narrative is as important as the tight focus of Kent’s screenplay and the proficient skill of her crew. Connecting with a long-running trope present across the spectrum of horror cinema, The Babadook pop-up book that Amelia and Sam read together foreshadows the Babadook’s motivations, strengths and weaknesses like a codec of Babadook lore. The reappearance of the torn up storybook with the added line, the more you deny me / the stronger I get, neatly delineates the Babadook’s secret power and the film’s central metaphor. It could be easy to prejudge The Babadook as a story about the anxieties and isolation of parenthood. But make no mistake; this is, first and foremost, a film about grief. Sam is a walking, talking reminder of the most horrible experience of Amelia’s life and for both characters the Babadook represents a different side of feelings too ugly and frightening to lend a name. The way the Babadook takes form and affects Amelia and Sam’s home and their physicality makes solid the grief for the dead that can possess the living. Like a problematic child, grief cannot be ignored in the hope that it will take care of itself. It demands acknowledgement, it demands understanding and it demands boundaries. Without these things, it can only grow into something monstrous.
That Jennifer Kent and her cast and crew has crafted such a complete narrative package is cause enough for celebration. That it places the psychology of its protagonists front and centre in a way that drives the narrative forward is almost unheard of in modern horror films and, as such, it is an outstanding throwback to the roots of the genre.