Let’s get this out of the way right now – The Babadook is almost certainly the finest Australian horror film I’ve ever seen. First time feature film director, Jennifer Kent, has created a devastating vision of a single-mother, haunted by the death of her husband, in what may or may not be a state of absolute psychological free-fall. But this dramatic declaration should not mislead prospective viewers – The Babadook is a film of small scale, tightly controlled, that executes upon its horrific ambitions with pin-point precision.
Seven years after the death of her husband in a horrific car accident, Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to get by as a single mother. Her young son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), is exhibiting serious behavioural difficulties. Her sister is becoming tired of her inability to move on. And her job as a nurse in a retirement home only furthers a general sense of malaise. But things get far worse when her young son finds a new bedtime story in the basement – The Babadook. Filled with threats of violence and deeply disturbing imagery, Amelia discards the repugnant story. But by then, the child is convinced the monster exists, and Amelia’s insomnia and anxiety combine with serious consequences. Is there a monster in the house – that’s the film’s leading premise – and The Babadook’s real horrors come from the disturbing violation of the mother/son relationship, as Amelia’s insomnia, grief, and horrific visions result in the most believable and volatile degradation of human behaviour since The Shining.
And this is where The Babadook truly excels. The seamless fusion of the film’s literal and metaphoric elements is near perfect. Is the Babadook in fact a monster sent from the deepest depths, or is it simply the vision of a single mother, overwhelmed by grief and trauma, finally enveloped by her own sense of helplessness? It is this complication that gives the film its true edge – lifting an almost comically childish horror creation from camp to the truly horrific. If anything, the hazily drawn boundaries of the cartoonish abomination that haunts mother and child make it all the more horrific – it’s naïve elements seemingly highlighting the damage being done to this young boy unable to escape his situation.
Noah Wiseman is quite young, but the child delivers a performance that takes us from identifying with his mother’s resentment to deeply sympathising with a young boy stuck in an inescapable nightmare. However, this is Essie Davis’ film, and she nails it. Moving slowly and believably from the role of sympathetic and patient mother to volatile train-wreck, Davis never provides opportunity to question the pace or reality of her degenerating behaviour. This is in equal parts due to Davis’ skill as a performer, and Kent’s abilities as a screenwriter and director – both know exactly who Amelia is and where she is going.
What I find staggering is that the film only garnered a brief run in 13 cinemas upon its initial release in Australia. The praise of local critics didn’t make much of a difference, and it’s only upon international release that The Babadook is now beginning to garner the attention it deserves. Thank goodness for that, but I find it more than a little disturbing that I had not even heard of the film until well after its initial run. Food for thought for the Australian exhibitors?
But it wouldn’t do to end on that note. The Babadook is one of the finest Australian horror films of all time (if not the finest), and should not go unwatched by anybody with even a passing interest in horror cinema, Australian films, or film in general. Indeed, it’s one of the few good horror movies I’ve seen in recent years that can also make the broader claim of simply being a “good film”. Hats off to Jennifer Kent, whose precise touch, and insight into the human character make The Babadook something more than the sum of its parts.