The best horror films are always about something else. The ghost or monster or supernatural menace is either a metaphor or a mirror of the deeper psychological, emotional, personal or social issues plaguing the characters. When that clicks – without being too obvious or heavy-handed — you usually have a great horror movie on your hands. And Australia’s The Babadook is unmistakably a great horror movie, as well as an assured and often astounding feature directorial debut from Jennifer Kent.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a widowed mother still grief-stricken over the death of her husband six years earlier in a car crash. The accident happened while he was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son Samuel – which inextricably links the two in Amelia’s mind and keeps her from loving him as unconditionally as a parent would. It doesn’t help that Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is high-energy and often seems “out of control,” with a constant fear of monsters that has him scurrying into his mother’s bed every night.
Amelia, who works as an aide in a senior living center, is exhausted both emotionally and physically, and it doesn’t help matters when Samuel finds a book called “The Babadook” – seemingly a children’s book, but one that warns quite explicitly about a malevolent creature that comes to snatch people away. Samuel is convinced that the Babadook has invaded their house and becomes more distraught and even violent, to the point where Amelia has to medicate him. But then strange occurrences around the house begin to make her believe that the Babadook may be real after all.
Kent gets so many things right in the film, starting with the precarious emotional position that Amelia and Samuel find themselves in from the start. Samuel’s behavior and even existence is in some ways a complete affront to both Amelia and the memory of her late husband. You can feel her asking the question that every parent asks at one point or another: “How did I give birth to this creature?” As a parent, I found the scenes of Samuel misbehaving – often irrationally, like an animal – and Amelia coping as best as she can unnerving and difficult to watch in a very primal fashion that non-parents may not experience the same way (I’ve seen some reviews criticizing Wiseman’s performance as overwrought, but no, they get like that).
Introducing the Babadook into this fragile dynamic creates an almost unbearable tension. Kent knows that silence, stillness and shadows often work much better than jump scares and the atmosphere of unease in the house becomes intensely palpable. The movie walks the fine line between psychological and supernatural horror for almost its entire length, leaving the viewer wondering if the Babadook is real or a figment of this mother and son’s crumbling minds. As they descend into almost a co-dependent psychosis in the film’s second half, the story takes on an air of tragedy that is just as powerful as its more horrific elements.
And then there’s the Babadook itself, which is one of the more original and frightening monsters I’ve seen in a film in recent memory. Part storybook demon, part something more unspeakable, it’s never glimpsed completely, but what we see of it hints at a greater evil that is all the more terrifying because it does not come with the usual back story that so many modern horror films seem required to carry with them these days.
The movie threatens to get out of Kent’s control just a little toward the finish line, but she reins it back in with a deliciously ambiguous ending. On all other fronts, the film is outstanding: Davis is ferociously good as a mother and woman pushed to the brink and carries almost the entire film on her shoulders; even when Amelia veers into dangerously unsympathetic territory you never stop feeling for her or her plight. The cinematography by Raduk Ladczuk is superb as well, turning Amelia and Samuel’s already somber home into a physical manifestation of their changing emotional states, while composer Jed Kurzel takes simple themes and imbues them with a sense of menace and fear.
The Babadook is the best horror movie I’ve seen in some time, because it works on all those emotional and psychological levels in addition to succeeding as a straight genre outing. Perhaps the thing that gets under one’s skin the most about the film – and that’s how I felt, like it got its claws right into my flesh – is the way it takes the most beautiful relationship we know, that of a parent and child, and corrupts it absolutely. That is the true horror of The Babadook.
The Babadook is available on Direct TV October 30 and in theaters and on VOD November 28.