The Babadook (2014) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for strong bloody content, some gore, some sexuality, and language
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Tim Purcell
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Review published November 8, 2014
Old-school horror thrills are on the agenda for this low-budget Australian shocker that emerges as one of the most effective scary films of 2014. It's nothing too new in terms of the formula plot, but it is very well executed, and features a fiercely bold performance from lead actress Essie Davis (The Matrix Revolutions, The Matrix Reloaded), which is more than enough to deliver the requisite frights one might expect from such an endeavor.
Davis stars as single mum and nurse Amelia, a widow of seven years who has yet to fully move on from the loss of her beloved Oskar, despite her assertions that she has. Also surviving in the traumatic aftermath of a car accident is her squirrely, imaginative son Samuel (Wiseman), whose persistent misbehavior has made him someone other parents want their children to avoid contacting because of his weird and sometimes violent behavior.
One night, while reading one of an assortment of books to Samuel from his collection, she stumbles into an odd one called "Mister Babadook", which tells, in pop-up form, an eerie story of a spiky-digited monster with human clothing and top hat whose intent appears to be invited in to spook the existence of the living inhabitants of a household. The book not only gives Amelia a chill, but Samuel, who has seen far too much before she can put it down, becomes obsessed, claiming he can see Babadook, and that they are in mortal peril now. Amelia doesn't believe it, but weird things do eventually emerges, not the least of which is that the book continues to reappear even after its destruction, with even more disturbing verses inside.
There are quite a few allusions to strange and scary films of old, including a notable early short from George Melies from 1900 called The Magic Book, which is prominently featured on Amelia's television as she tries to deal with her ceaseless insomnia. Debut feature writer-director Jennifer Kent, who is basically remaking her own short film, Monster, is obviously drawing much inspiration from classic cinema to conjure up the eerie atmosphere where things go bump, bump, bump in the night. It also calls up the world of magic and illusion, where safe and sure things are not always what they seem, but those things that seem unreal just might be.
The best horror films, while taking a supernatural angle, are about some very real scary stuff underneath. If one were to remove Mister Babadook from the film, it could easily be about what might happen to a woman suffering from an extreme case of schizophrenia, with her delusions, personality shifts, and inability to focus. It's a scary thing for her child to witness these changes occurring in his normally loving mother, his only source of stability since birth (father died on the day he was born), so for a young boy, such a notion of having no place else to go can seem truly horrifying. It's probably not a coincidence that Mister Babadook's illustration looks a bit like Samuel, especially in his magician's outfit, perhaps representing Amelia's fears of not being able to control her child on her own.
The Babadook is one of the most unnerving films to come out in some time, not only for its foreboding and suffocating chills, but because the malevolence puts mother and son in the rare horror movie position of perhaps ending up killing one another, which is one of the more disturbing acts one might ever have to witness. With its washed-out color schemes and emphasis on dark corners and creepy-crawlies, its a movie that will have you on edge, hoping, just hoping, that Mister Babadook can go away before the psychological terror in the premonitions of his book come to life.
While Hollywood is content to churn out the gore, The Babadook shows that the unknown is far more frightening than anything one could explicitly show you. You'll probably leave the lights on while watching this one.
©2014 Vince Leo