A widowed mother and her young son deal a monster haunting their every move in the frightening Australian film The Babadook. First Time director Jennifer Kent proves to be an expert in scaring the shit out of viewers, as this is the most intense film I’ve seen since The Conjuring. But don’t take my word for it; when Stephen King and William Friedkin lend their name to the promotional materials, you know that this film brings the goods. The Babadook isn’t just a horror movie, though; it’s also an emotional film about parenthood and grief with a surprise ending that may anger people expecting a neat and tidy resolution.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mother raising her seven-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), an emotionally troubled boy whose chronic nightmares have her one the edge of sanity. Every night when he comes into her bed, Sam grinds his teeth, kicks her, and disrupts whatever sleep Amelia can get. The poor woman is a mess. Of course, she was already a wreck before Sam was born. On the way to the hospital to deliver him, she and her husband, Oskar, were in a car wreck and Oskar was decapitated. Amelia lives each day with the constant reminder that Sam came into this world just hours after the love of her life was killed.
To protect himself and Amelia from his nightmares, Sam builds weapons, including a dart gun and a backpack slingshot that rockets softballs at would be monsters. These gadgets get Sam in trouble and eventually removed from his school. To ease his anxieties, Amelia reads to him before bedtime, some storybook with a happy ending from the shelf next to his bed. One night, Sam pulls out a mysterious one called “Mister Babadook.” It’s a beautifully constructed pop-up book (designed by American illustrator Alexander Juhasz) with disturbing images. In the story, the mysterious Mister Babadook is a supernatural creature that terrorizes any person who becomes of aware of him. Needless to say, Sam freaks out and begins to believe that the Babadook has come to their house.
Amelia tries to sooth his worries, until she personally begins to experience the horror of the Babadook. During the day, at night, the monstrous creature with a talk black stove top hat and razor-like nails stalks her. That’s when she really loses it and stops sleeping altogether. Whether her own nightmares come from sleep deprivation or because that Babadook is real I won’t reveal. This is one hell of a movie and I don’t want to spoil it for you. How scary is it? Watching it alone – in broad daylight – I screamed twice.
Kent adapted the film from a short she made, which is included on the Blu-ray. However, that film, Monster, in no way indicates how adept she is at pulling you into the lives of her characters and placing you in the middle of their journey. Every aspect of The Babadook is beautifully done, from Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography, to Simon Njoo’s editing, to the magnificent house set build by production designer Alex Holmes and his team (the Blu-ray features a tour of it). What I loved is that Kent brought the horror out of the house and into the light, with some of the most frightful sequences taking place in the middle of day. A scene with Amelia and Sam driving through their suburban streets was one of the best.
Davis and Wiseman are a perfect acting duo. She captures every nuance of a mother doing her best to keep it together while her son is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Any parent who has lived through some difficult years of childhood should appreciate Amelia’s struggles. I’ve heard that some audience members hate Wiseman’s performance, finding his character grating. I disagree. Without Sam’s relentless screaming and needling, there’s no reason for Amelia to test the limits of her love for him. Both performances are brilliant and the movie wouldn’t work without Sam pushing you to near hatred of him.
The indie horror market has some really interesting films these days. Last year, IFC Midnight released a great movie called Beneath, and last month saw It Follows get some of the best reviews of any film this year. The Babadook fits in nicely with those other two movies, providing enough scares and an ending open to interpretation. It will be talked about for years.
The Babadook Blu-ray is a co-production between Shout! Factory and IFC Midnight. Shout! Has done a spectacular job distributing horror movies this past decade, creating beautiful packaging and great bonus content. The Babadook is no exception. The special edition Blu-ray comes with a pop-up image of the Babadook that is something you don’t want siting near your bed at night. If this is a new partnership between the two film entities, then the horror community wins.