Here I go again, reviewing a film that's been out for about a year. Why? Well, if you're like me you never go to the pictures because you don't find it a pleasant experience. So you've got the option of seeing films on DVD, online, or when they pop up on regular telly. I rented The Babadook because it got a lot of praise from people I know and whose opinions I respect. Surprise, surprise, these people were entirely right.
The film is an Australian-Canadian horror movie and marks the debut of writer-director Jennifer Kent. On the strength this film I'll definitely watch her next one. It's a very simple story with Gothic overtones, and yet at the same time manages to be a realistic, modern drama. It's grown-up horror that is, at times, so harrowing you might not want to see it more than once. But it is worth seeing.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a young single mother, because she was widowed when her husband died in a car crash. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is nearly seven. He was born on the day his father died - the fatal accident happened on the way to the maternity ward. Young Sammy is bright, inventive, but also troubled and hard to handle. He is going through a 'monster phase', so every night Amelia must check under the bed, in the wardrobe etc before Sammy will settle down. Juggling motherhood with a job working in a care home and lack of sleep due to Sammy's nightmares is fraying her at the edges.
It's all credible, realistic drama, but things take a twist when Amelia finds an unusual storybook in Samuel's room. The pop-up book entitled Mister Babadook has no author or publisher, and its story is not a pleasant one. Amelia gets rid of the book, or thinks she does, but the Babadook arrives, heralded by the rumbling and knocking mentioned in the story. But is this a folie à deux between a disturbed boy and his stressed-out mother? There are hints that suggest Amelia is hallucinating, but nothing decisive.
What makes The Babadook memorable compared to most modern horror films is that the story springs from realistic characterisation and a well-crafted plot. It is also devoid of cheap gimmicks, like the sudden crashing chord to make us jump. Amelia may be cracking up under the pressure of bereavement, motherhood, and sheer loneliness. A friendly co-worker who might have provided a conventional respite for Amelia proves unhelpful. The same goes for her sister and the latter's circle of glossy, suburban friends. During the final crisis the nice old lady next door is turned away. If the film has a message it's that confronting our terrors is something we can only do alone. Even if, paradoxically enough, we are doing it for someone else.
The performances are excellent, with Essie Davis progressing from wearily sad through to bloodstained frenzy by uneasy stages. Noah Wiseman, who resembles a tiny Edgar Allan Poe with pale face and huge dark eyes, is utterly convincing. Small children tend to be funny, infuriating, and vulnerable, and we get all that in spades. Samuel winds his mother up in grand style, and her response is horrifying without ever being unbelievable. This is grown-up horror in which the shocks are controlled but always effective. Two especially horrific moments are treated differently, and you can see the artistic reasoning behind both decisions. And it all holds together, right to the very end.