A gothic, haunted house fantasy for the modern age, The Babadook crept its way into cinema screens in 2014 to much applause and strong word of mouth.
William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, claimed it to be one of the best horror films he had seen in years – a strong recommendation as any. It’s story involving a mother and son being plagued by the ghostly presence is a horror troupe as old as the genre itself but one that still seems popular with audiences judging by the popularity of films such Insidious and The Conjuring.
The film begins as a nightmarish lullaby as we see the accident that robs Amelia (Essie Davis) of her husband then literally float away to land on her bed and begin the living hell that seems to be raising her child Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel’s a precious young scamp who loves his magic and enjoys an over active imagination, going so far as to create a surprisingly well crafted catapult to fend off invisible ghouls. Amelia is tired. Worked to the bone, starved of attention and increasingly given to bouts of insomnia she is slowly unraveling. One evening at bedtime Samuel finds a lovely looking, bespoke pop-up book called The Babadook on his shelf. What begins as a witty cartoon about a mystery specter unnervingly turns into a threatening warning declaring that once you’ve welcomed him in that you can’t get rid of The Babadook…
Things become worse after Samuel is suspended from school for violence for acting out when no one believes in The Babadook meaning that Amelia is now essentially trapped in her house with her son with only the kind elderly neighbour and loveable family dog for company.
Both mother and son seem to lose hold of their sanity once The Babadook has been welcomed in, seemingly eating away at their very souls until they can finally confront the beast from within and purge it in a final showdown.
The formula for The Babadook is one that has been seen many times before. What writer/director Jennifer Kent has done here though is what the best horror stories do – created an allegorical tale. As much a story about dealing with grief and losing a loved one as much as it is an old fashioned spook story.
The atmosphere teeters an impressive tight rope between the real world of suburban houses and concrete roads and the dream land of the pitch black shadows. Everything in Amelia’s home looks like a stylish but more subdued version of Tim Burton’s home furnishing catalogues. Each item and lick of paint is chosen with precision to envelop us in this fantasy world. Often if you find yourself paying attention to the set decoration and in this case sound design it often means there’s something fundamentally wrong with the story. In The Babadook’s case though it helps to flesh out what could have been another run of the mill ghost story. Some viewers may find a lack of jump scares an issue when compared to recent horror films. What the film does achieve though is an overriding tension and dread that comes from the sum of its parts.
Never knowing if the young boy Samuel is possessed of the murderous spirit or going through some mental health issues, whichever way it turns it has one of the most unnerving faces shown on screen in a long time. Essie Davis too is the picture of a woman torn down by grief, quick to anger but still with signs that she yearns to love and be loved, it’s a heartbreaking performance. A performance that raises Amelia out of just being a terrorized victim in her own home.
Fans of haunted house tales will find much to reward in The Babadook. Viewers who have experienced a profound loss in their lives may find it hard to watch at times but maybe re-affirming. That’s what the best horror films and, indeed, cinema should always strive to do.
The Babadook is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms on Feb 16, 2015 via Icon Film Distribution.