babadook_1Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer(s): Jennifer Kent
Region of Origin: Australia
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 93 mins

Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by a past trauma, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her. (Source)

The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent is the real deal. Horror films are a dime a dozen these days, but none of them have the depth or nuance to transcend beyond cheap scares – this film does. Though it toys with tropes and ideas we’ve seen before, Kent transforms the familiar into a dark fairy tale that comes from a very personal and intimate place. As a result, the film terrifies long after it ends, using the heartbreaking relationship between a mother and her son to illustrate the crippling nature of grief, as well as the courage to carry on when it seems impossible. With such psychological subtext behind an already tense premise, The Babadook hits us where it counts, looking deep into the darkness of the human soul.

The film follows Amelia, a widowed single mother and her son Samuel after the tragic death of her husband. You can immediately sense that there’s an unspoken strain to their relationship even though they seem to love each other very much. While Amelia makes ends meet as an orderly, Sam is convinced that there’s a monster trying to separate him and his mother – he’s gone as far as creating makeshift weapons and traps for the “imaginary” entity. Things get even stranger when Sam finds a pop-up book named Mister Babadook, and promptly asks his mother to read it to him one night before bed. The book teaches them of a supernatural creature that inserts itself into someone’s life and torments them until its true nature is uncovered. With good reason, both Amelia and Sam are traumatized by the book’s contents and try to forget it. But the more they deny him, the stronger Mister Babadook gets. What follows is a true fight for survival, one in which mother and son find out how much they really need each other.

What really separates the film from its peers is the way it finds horror in the ideas behind its scares. Kent understands that what frightens us are not fleeting moments of shock or empty jolts, but the underlying context behind each frightening encounter. There are three main things going on in the film: what is really wrong with Amelia (why is she always so distraught and unable to look her son in the eyes), who or what are Sam’s imaginary friends and what really is the Babadook? These three mysteries are more inextricable than you can imagine, and Kent refreshingly presents them in a way that makes as much sense emotionally as it does logically. Because of that, the film pays off in a highly cathartic and touching way, taking us through deep despair while giving us a satisfying ending that isn’t a cop out – it feels like a full story, something that most horror films seem to have a hard time finding these days.

babadook_3In addition to Kent’s smart story is equally impressive execution, including stunning control over atmosphere and visual flourish. From the Babadook’s vaudevillian aesthetic to his practical, stop-motion execution, the film captures us with trance-like precision and nightmarish abandon. It at times feels like the best parts of a funhouse, while still contrasting understated moments of dread with mounting tension and unpredictable release. I love the almost Calligarian aesthetic as well, which includes a smart use of shadows, negative space and monochromatic interiors to create a slowly oppressive environment for the characters and our mindset. It’s here where we realize that Kent wastes nothing in the frame to get her story across, and it makes for a wholly immersive experience.

Since the film is above all a character study, it benefits from the beautiful performances of Essie Davis’ Amelia and Noah Wiseman’s Samuel. As Amelia, Essie wears her tortured existence well portraying a mother who wants what’s best for her son, even if there’s something that prevents her from fully committing to him. As Amelia searches for a way to reciprocate her son’s unconditional bond, we notice how nuanced and layered Essie’s performance is, full of gentle nurture and a few turns you may not see coming. While kids in horror films are pretty much hit and miss (mostly miss), Noah’s Sam is incredible. He will steal your heart in the film’s first few minutes and brings a genuine kind of purity to the role as his character does whatever he can to save his mother. Finally, a kid character who isn’t annoying or reduced to stereotypes!

A film like this could’ve easily been a nihilistic mess, but Jennifer Kent finds a way to turn tragedy and trauma into something meaningful and poetic. She’s given us a fresh perspective on the genre, showing us that monsters that creep in the night are nothing without a brilliant conceit. In the end, Kent’s film is a reflection of our deep seated fears, ones that touch on loneliness, grief and inferiority, which are ultimately contrasted with love and hope. The Babadook signifies the arrival of a strong cinematic voice, and the birth of a boogeyman for the ages.

Crome Rating: 5/5