The greatest horror films -- the ones that stand the test of time -- continue to resonate with audiences not just for the theme park thrills they provide, but because they find a way to tap into our deepest, most primal fears. They can choose to make those fears metaphorical or terrifyingly literal, but that ability to get under our skin is the reason horror has proven to be such a potent and enduring genre. The debut feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, "The Babadook" is just the latest horror film to strike a nerve with audiences. A frightening exploration of the most sinister aspects of motherhood, mental illness, and grief, the film shapes these ideas into a demented bedtime story that's one of the most chilling films I've seen in ages.
The film centers on Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed mother, and her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Sam's father died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, and over the years Amelia has -- perhaps understandably -- grown to associate Sam's presence with the loss of her beloved husband. She's still so traumatized that she refuses to let Sam celebrate his birthday on the proper day. A troubled boy with an overactive imagination and severe behavioral problems, Sam has developed a disturbing fascination with building homemade weapons to combat the monsters he fears lurk under his bed. Amelia loves her son, but the constant amount of care Sam requires leaves her mentally and physically exhausted. Isolated inside their house, these neuroses fester until Amelia's maternal instincts start to curdle into something else entirely.
Their home is already a fairly toxic environment, but then one day, a children's pop-up book, that Amelia doesn't remember ever seeing before, appears on Sam's bookshelf. A ghoulish little story about a sinister figure named Mister Babadook, the book only makes Sam more fearful. A malevolent being with a top hat and Nosferatu-esque talons -- somewhere between Freddy Krueger and Dr. Caligari -- the Babadook feels vaguely familiar, as though he's somehow always existed in your subconscious nightmares. Both mother and son find themselves haunted by the creature; he creeps into their minds and seems to prowl the dark recesses of their home. And the book's pages promise that "you can't get rid of the Babadook."
Kent creates a palpable feeling of the anxiety and stress Amelia is under. At one point, Sam's pleading disrupts his mother's slumber before she's barely been able to shut her eyes; it's an especially effective illustration of the unrelenting nature of parenthood. When you add in the humiliation she feels under the judgmental eyes of her sister and other mothers, it's somewhat understandable when she imagines giving in to her darkest repressed impulses.
Crucial to the film's effectiveness is Davis's increasingly unhinged -- though consistently sympathetic -- performance. She creates a compelling portrait of parental indifference (or worse). If the horror genre got the respect it deserved, her work would be up for awards season consideration. As it is, it's one of the finest performances of the year, and she's equally matched by the young Wiseman's deranged presence.
Kent's elegantly psychological approach avoids the silly jump scares that have become a crutch many modern horror films lean on far too much. The slowly building dread and tension make "The Babadook" one of the strongest debut features I've seen. The production design is impeccable, particularly for such a low-budget film, capturing the claustrophobic mindset of the characters, and the inventive, mostly practical effects are in keeping with the film's handmade aesthetic. It's viewed through the eyes of Radek Ladczuk's beautifully cold, monochromatic cinematography -- all grayish-blue tones, creating echoes of the Babadook's Expressionist influences.
If Mister Babadook is too obviously a metaphor -- the film
never truly succeeds in making the malevolent boogeyman feel like a real,
external presence -- that doesn't make this film any less frightening. If
anything, the emotional depth of that metaphor makes the film's ideas even
scarier. That he's a manifestation of a broken psyche leaves open an even more
unnerving and horrifying a conclusion: The demons that lurk within us are more
terrifying and dangerous than any ghost or ghoul.