A good horror film offers the kind of entertaining shocks you’d expect from a ghost train ride. A great horror film brings depth, subtext and character as well jolts of terror – they leave us with something that lingers and makes us shudder long after the cinema’s closed for the night. Australian chiller The Babadook undoubtedly falls into the latter category.
Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent’s film is told largely from the tired, wan perspective of Amilia (Essie Davis), a mother who lost her husband in a car accident just under seven years earlier. That fateful crash occurred while Amilia was being driven to hospital to have her son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), meaning that his birthday has a sad dual significance.
Still grieving her loss, Amilia struggles to cope with her wayward son, whose imagination and creativity is a curse as much as a blessing. Convinced that a monster’s going to besiege the house within the next few days, Sam busily crafts assorted weapons to defend himself and his mother – something that infuriates his school teachers as well as Amilia’s haughty friend, Claire (Hayley McElhinney).
Then Sam stumbles on an old pop-up book called Mister Babadook, and things become even spookier. Certain that the shadowy creature that looms up out of the book’s pages is the monster he’s been afraid of all along, Sam becomes increasingly irrational. Amilia, in turn, begins to have strange dreams. Could that be the Babadook scratching on the bedroom door?
On the smallest of canvases, Kent crafts an intimate tale. Appropriately, for a film about an entity that originates in the pages of a book, The Babadook has the look and feel of a faded fairytale. Amilia lives in an old grey house, drives an old grey car and works in an old grey retirement home populated by seemingly catatonic old grey people. Every frame looks as exhausted and drained of life as its protagonist, whose thin smile hides a reservoir of repressed sorrow. It’s understated yet beautifully shot by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; he gives his interiors the minimal, uneasy atmosphere of a Vilhelm Hammershoi painting.
Taking a similarly studied approach, Kent carefully illustrates all the facets of her characters: Amilia’s love for her son and also her loneliness and resentment at having lost her husband; Sam’s loveable mischief-making and his capacity to conjure chaos out of the most mundane situation.
By the same token, the director manages to inspire fear with little more than shadow and sound. Special effects and outlandish gouts of blood are few and far between in The Babadook, because it doesn’t need them; like Sam, we learn to dread what’s behind the doors, in the cellar or down in the basement in Amilia’s creaky house. Kent reaches back to German expressionist cinema for her scares, dredging up a black-clad figure that looks like something from a half-forgotten nightmare: part Struwwelpeter, part Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But again, The Babadook’s richness comes from the intimacy of its mother and son pairing. Both performances are difficult to fault, but Essie Davis’s turn is really something special: she lays herself emotionally bare in a role that runs the gamut from exhaustion to fear to outright fury. It’s an unusually detailed, well-written part, and Davis throws herself into it.
The astute writing means that even a familiar horror staple like a fusty, insect-infested house appears to have a psychological grounding: Amilia and her husband probably bought the place when they were younger and full of optimism, with dreams of doing the place up as they raised their family. With him now gone, the house has become frozen in time, a lifeless backdrop for Kent’s increasingly insistent jabs of horror.
Make no mistake: The Babadook is not for the faint of heart. From its uneasy opening act, the tension slowly ratchets up, slipping effortlessly from low-key scares to moments that are likely to leave you gasping. A psychological horror that employs many of the genre’s trappings creatively and with real intelligence, The Babadook is that rarest of things: a terrifying film with genuine poignancy and depth.
The Babadook is out in UK cinemas on the 24th October.
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