For those who have not heard, The Babadook is an Australian horror film by writer/director Jennifer Kent who is making her feature-length debut which is based on her short film MONSTER. The film was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and was met with near universal acclaim since its premier at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The story follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who has raised her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman) alone since the death of her husband in an automobile accident en route to the hospital so she could give birth. Sam has been displaying a lot of behavioral problems which is causing severe stress on Amelia. One night, Amelia reads a book of Sam’s choosing to get him to sleep. He chooses this mysterious pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook,” which is about a creature that torments anyone who is made aware of it. Over time, Sam becomes increasingly afraid of the Babadook which he claims is in the house, all while Amelia finds herself in the presence of something possibly supernatural that might be making her insane.
Given the hype, I’m happy to say that not only does the film meet the hype it is easily one of the best horror films in recent memory and quite possibly one of the best films of the year. I know that might be a bit of a bold statement, that last part especially. I’ll try and do my best to explain why I think that. One of the things you might be hearing a lot when critics talk about this film is the concept of “true horror.” It’s easy to think that that phrase is a bit off-putting since it gives a sense of a limited view on horror as a genre, especially given how much variety that genre can produce. However, the thought behind that concept still stands. I think the best horror films are ones that are able to work as straight dramas, in which the threat (be it a monster, killer, demon, spirt, whatever) serves as a metaphor or is a personification of some running theme in the story that deals with very real fears that people may experience. The Babadook deals with grief, depression, motherhood, and how suppressed feelings and personal demons can cause severe problems if left unacknowledged. The Babadook serves as the physical manifestation of all those ideas which leads to many possibilities in speculation and analysis on what certain story elements mean on a thematic level.
Not only does the film succeed in a writing and storytelling level, but Jennifer Kent’s direction is masterful and incredibly well-crafted. When most mainstream horror tend to rely on jump scares, Kent instead uses atmosphere and the power of suggestion to their fullest extent. We don’t see the Babadook a lot and when we do, it’s very quick, but it makes the film that much more effective. In terms of visuals and aesthetics, there are a lot of influences at play. There are elements of 70’s haunted house horror, the mix of melancholia and dread of early Roman Polanski, the dream-like atmosphere of David Lynch and the visual design of silent cinema, taking aspects of the other-worldliness of German expressionist films and the surrealism of Georges Méliès. The way the house and the muted color schemes are designed like what you’d imagine a Wes Anderson film looked like if it was invaded by Tim Burton. There are moments where it feels like you’re watching a film that was designed for black-and-white photography, but was accidentally filmed in color.
There is clearly a lot of care taken for the writing and filmmaking, but all of it would have been in vain if the acting doesn’t deliver. Fortunately, the acting is phenomenal. While there are some supporting characters in the film, this film rests on the shoulders of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. Essie Davis gives a layered and emotionally powerful performance and it’s easily one of the best I’ve seen all year, which makes it that much more disappointing that she won’t get the awards attention she deserves. She is able to portray the increasing sense of anxiety that becomes intense both emotionally and physically as the film goes on. Noah Wiseman is dealt with a difficult role. You are initially meant to find Sam to be very annoying and irritating, in order to get a sense of how stressed Amelia is. He does very well with this (a little too good perhaps), but then as the film continues, he does a good job at getting you on his side as Amelia becomes influenced by the Babadook in terrifying ways. It’s easy for certain types of characters, especially in horror films, to be annoying to the point of being irredeemable. Noah is dealt given a tough task at being purposefully annoying from the beginning and becoming more sympathetic. He pulls it off very well, and he works wonders with Essie Davis.
The Babadook is a psychologically dense and brilliantly crafted horror masterpiece. Those who are looking for a typical monster movie might need to reevaluate their expectations, but I don’t think that is a big thing to ask for. Jennifer Kent, in her debut, manages to deliver a level of writing and filmmaking that is hard to find even among veteran horror filmmakers. Be it the multiple thematic layers, the jaw-dropping production design, the near-panic inducing levels of dread or the powerhouse lead performances, there is sure to be something for most people to find interesting in this. This is a must-see for horror fans and film fans in general. It’s a film that is definitely worth supporting, and shows a promising career for writer/director Jennifer Kent, who I think firmly establishes herself as a horror master the same way Gareth Evans establishes himself as one of the best action directors today when he released The Raid in 2011, which was just his second film. The Babadook is currently available in limited theatrical release and On Demand, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Side Note: For those who may have already seen it, or are intrigued by the trailers, there is something fun the filmmakers are trying to do. On the film’s official website (thebabadook.com), there is a campaign they are doing to publish the actual pop-up book in the same quality as the one in the film. They will be able to create the books if they receive a certain number of pre-orders. So, if you’re into collectibles, film prop stuff, that might be something worth looking into. In another interesting factoid, Warner Brothers, according to some reports, have met with Jennifer Kent in regards to directing their upcoming Wonder Woman film before they signed on Michelle MacLaren for the project. I am happy they went with MacLaren, but it’s also nice to see Kent being looked upon as talent worthy to take on big projects. I’ll gladly look forward to whatever she does next.