You could say there are two very different stories being told in “The Babadook”. But over time you’ll notice that the two are cleverly and shrewdly interwoven giving us something well beyond a run-of-the-mill horror film. It’s an intelligent film made with a tiny $2 million budget and actually completed thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. The end result turned heads at Sundance and it is finally getting deserved respect from a wider audience.
The film was written and directed by Jennifer Kent and found its roots in a short film Kent made in 2005. The story follows a widowed single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The two have been alone since the death of her husband and his father. Samuel hasn’t adapted well to his fatherless home. He’s a lonely boy with a number of behavioral issues which cause problems at school and home. On top of that Samuel is haunted by dreams of a terrifying monster and his belief in it causes his behavior to be even more erratic and troubling.
But it could be said the film is more about Amelia. She is an earnest and loving mother who struggles to conceal her own sorrows and burdens for the sake of her son. Kent’s vision and Davis’ performance create a disconsolate portrayal of a woman drowning in her circumstances. We get close looks at how her situation effects every social and potentially romantic relationship she has. We easily sympathize with Amelia which makes the sharp turns in the second half of the film all the more devastating.
One night things take an even worse turn. Samuel asks Amelia to read him a pop-up children’s book titled “Mr. Babadook”. It’s a grisly story about a creature who consumes those made aware of his existence. Samuel is convinced Babadook is real leading to even more troubling behavior. A series of creepy events begin happening around their house which Amelia first attributes to her son. But soon she too comes face-to-face with the question of Babadook’s existence. It’s here that the lines between reality and the supernatural are blurred.
“The Babadook” is a creepy movie but not in the conventional sense. Jennifer Kent pointed to movies like “The Shining”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and even “Nosferatu” as influences and you can see them in her technique and presentation. And “The Babadook” does indeed employ several familiar horror film devices. But she uses such a careful and strategic blend of classic haunted house scares, boogie man frights, and the film’s most potent element – psychological horror. It all works to near perfection. Adding to the movie’s uniqueness is the wonderfully eerie use of sound and the minimalist approach to special effects. These things are vital to giving the film its own satisfying aesthetic.
But the main reason that the horror works is because of the characters. The first half of the film sets them up and connects them to the audience. By the second half we are so invested in Amelia and Samuel and their deteriorating circumstances that we are desperately rooting for a happy resolution. It’s this connection with the characters that so many horror films fail to establish. Davis gives an inspired performance and conveys such motherly authenticity through her character. Young Noah Wiseman is heartbreaking and deserves a lot of credit. His character transforms over time and he manages it so well in his performance. These two are the lifeblood of the film.
In the end I found myself smitten with “The Babadook’s” smarts and craftiness. The story is rich with raw emotion and a genuine eeriness. There is always a tinge of uncertainty which constantly has you questioning what you’re seeing. I like that kind of interpretive challenge. This isn’t the type of film that will ever be considered a classic, but it’s well written and well made which I believe earns Jennifer Kent attention as a filmmaker to keep your eye on. She certainly has a winner with this film.