The Babadook is an effective and disturbing horror film well before the monster finally begins to torment this tortured and fractured family unit.
Favouring psychological terror over gore tactics, this frightening independent horror film by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent is far more concerned with dissecting a mother’s inner demons than tearing her apart.
Amelia (brilliantly embodied by Essie Davis) is a distraught single mother, who is struggling to raise her high-needs son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). She’s been left to play the widow, after her husband was killed while driving her to deliver their first born child. Her son Sam is now the constant and demanding reminder of the life she once had, and the one she is now forced to nurture.
Suffering from severe sleep deprivation, when she can work, Amelia spends her time in a dementia ward (a nod to the road she’s already on). Every other waking moment, she attends to her son or combats her amnesia by watching nightmarish imagery on late night television. The film cleverly references some of the earliest forms of horror cinema (Black Sabbath, The Phantom of the Opera and some of the works of French auteur George Méliès) as a way of suggesting that the unfolding dread is purely in the mind, rather than manifesting itself in the physical.
The stakes are raised tenfold when Amelia begins to read a mysterious children’s book “Mr. Babadook” to her son one evening. The book itself is beautifully drawn by illustrator Alex Juhasz, but its story is one of a monster forcing a mother to the brink of insanity and murder.
The film is more of an exploration of the trauma of single parenting and the inability to deal healthily with grief, than it is about the monsters under your children’s bed. But it doesn’t forget about its genre either.
Whether the monster is literal or an aberration from a broken women’s mind, the horror is very real. Kent orchestrates the scares with restraint and utilises both light and shadows to great effect. The day shots are just as disconcerting as the evening ones.
The film does evoke some imagery from The Shining (1980) and The Conjuring (2013), but it also feels distinctive enough to separate itself from the rest of the pack.
With her debut effort, Kent is a welcome presence in the Australian film industry, who will hopefully continue to operate in a genre that is always in dire need of a fresh voice and perspective. What a triumph that this is also an Australian film. It pleases me to no end to recommend a smart Australian-made horror film that proves our industry is not yet dead. It’s alive and ready to scare you witless if you give it the chance.
THE VERDICT: 4/5
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Tim Purcell
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Budget: $2 million
Running time: 94 minutes