‘The Babadook’ Review: Bedtime Horrors

'The Babadook'

Movie Rating:

4

In an age filled with loud screeching horror movies and gore-wielding gross-outs, along comes a welcome film like ‘The Babadook’ to return the genre to its surrealistic and psychological roots. The debut feature of Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent plays like an old-fashioned fairy tale for adults, one that takes relatable real-world fears and projects them onto a genuinely chilling ghostly specter. There’s a lot going on in this rather brilliant little supernatural yarn, not the least of which is heavy rounds of genuine, pants-wetting fear.

Essie Davis stars as broken and struggling single mother Amelia. Her husband died in a car accident years ago, so she gave up her writing dreams to work as a caregiver for the elderly. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is 6-years-old and in the midst of his most squealing and demanding era of childhood. One night while Amelia is desperately trying to get her boy to sleep, she tells him to pick a book to read off of the shelf. He returns with something that she’s never seen before called ‘The Babadook’. Drawn in scratchy black-and-white in a style halfway between Tim Burton and Edward Gorey, the sinister looking pop-up book tells the tale of a mysterious monster known as (wait for it) The Babadook, who as the story goes will haunt anyone who dares to read the story. (“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”) Obviously, the boy doesn’t sleep well that night, and his mother tries to pretend she’s not shaken either. However, soon that little children’s story seems to be rather real. No matter how hard she tries, Amelia can’t get rid of the Babadook.

Like many great horror films, ‘The Babadook’ is only about its monster on the surface. Ultimately, it’s a tale of grief and inner darkness for which the ghostly specter often feels more like a representation of inner fears than something literal. Writer/director Jennifer Kent has a strong grasp of how to use the genre as metaphor, and if you’re inclined, it’s entirely possible to view the film as a story of a depressed and despondent mother struggling with her sanity between the shrieks of her troubled son.

However, Kent is also wise enough to make the film work on two levels. If you come to ‘The Babadook’ looking for ghostly pleasures, you’ll get plenty of those as well. The central monster in genuinely horrifying, feeling both elemental and as if it wandered off the screen from ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. Even the book itself feels deeply haunting. From the moment it appears, the careful reality that Kent set up for the film becomes elastic, and there’s not a moment from then on that won’t at some point worm its way under your skin.

As a filmmaker, Kent is clearly influenced by the likes of David Lynch and surrealist Italian horror directors. (One of Mario Bava’s finest films even gets a shout-out.) She has a knack for rhythm-based jump scares, but delivers her most effective sequences from the dreamlike state of haunting and insanity. Using old-fashioned techniques like stop-motion and in-camera effects, Kent creates a world of deep unease for the audience, where seemingly anything can happen.

To ground the movie around her haunting visualizations, Kent found two brilliant central performers in Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. The young boy is impressively natural throughout, and Kent is wisely unafraid to portray him as an annoyance as much as a cutie pie. Even better is Davis, onscreen for every frame and asked to undergo a gamut of emotional states and turmoil. The actress delivers a truly remarkable performance and the film simply wouldn’t work without her.

‘The Babadook’ is an excellent little horror yarn that should worm its tendrils into the hearts of horror fans and skeptics alike. Seek it out and you won’t be disappointed. Whether or not your sleep patterns will be interrupted is another story.

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